Mass Extermination

On the morning of Friday, April 4, 1941, two German doctors, Friedrich Mennecke, a dapper thirty-six-year-old, and the dumpy Theodor Steinmeyer, seven years older and sporting a crude Hitler mustache, arrived at Oranienburg train station and made their way to the nearby Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Except for their looks, the two psychiatrists had much in common. Ambitious and ruthless, they were both committed to radical racial hygiene and had risen at a young age to become asylum directors in the Third Reich, assisted by their early dedication to the Nazi cause (Steinmeyer had joined the party in 1929, Mennecke in 1932). During their half-hour walk, the two men, who would become firm friends, probably talked about their first trip to the camp on the previousday, when their superior, Professor Werner Heyde, had initiated them into a secret mission: they would examine around four hundred prisoners, selected by the Camp SS from among all the twelve thousand Sachsenhausen inmates.1

On arrival, Dr. Mennecke and Dr. Steinmeyer set themselves up in the camp’s infirmary to see the selected prisoners. The two physicians worked all day, interrupted only by lunch in the SS officers’ mess. They finished at 6:00 p.m., having each examined several dozen prisoners. Steinmeyer then returned to his hotel in Berlin, while Mennecke retired to a luxurious double room in the posh Hotel Eilers in Oranienburg. Buzzing with excitement, he fired off a letter to his wife. “Our work is very, very interesting,” he told her. At 9:00 a.m. the next day, after a good night’s rest and a rich breakfast, Dr. Mennecke met up again with Dr. Steinmeyer at Oranienburg station and returned to Sachsenhausen for more prisoner examinations, breaking off at lunchtime for the weekend. They resumed their duties on Monday morning, when they were joined by a third psychiatrist, Dr. Otto Hebold. They worked even quicker now and on the following day, Tuesday, April 8, 1941, after seeing the last remaining eighty-four prisoners, they had completed their mission.2

The doctors departed from Sachsenhausen as suddenly as they had appeared, leaving behind the prisoners they had examined. Most of them were little more than skin and bones. “They were so weak,” Dr. Hebold recalled later, “they could barely stand upright”; many were unable to work and had been in the infirmary for some time, suffering from a range of debilitating illnesses. Others had been selected by the SS inside their barracks. One was Siegbert Fraenkel, a refined fifty-seven-year-old art and book dealer from Berlin. Fraenkel had made many friends among the other Jewish prisoners in the torturous standing commando, diverting them during their interminable days with talks about paintings, literature, and philosophy. “Through his lectures,” one inmate later remembered, “he gave us back a bit of dignified, human life.” The corpulent Fraenkel was still in reasonable health after more than five months in the camp. Still the SS presented him to the visiting physicians in spring 1941, presumably because of his deformed spine.3

The doctors’ examinations in Sachsenhausen were a short, sharp ordeal. For several minutes, they interrogated each inmate about his background, health, and family; repeatedly, local Camp SS officials intervened, adding further details about alleged misconduct and poor work performance. Worst of all was the uncertainty about what the doctors wanted. Under the extreme conditions of the camps, inmates were always second-guessing their captors, trying to read the SS runes, and the doctors’ visit to Sachsenhausen in early April 1941 was no different. The most persistent rumor, encouraged by the SS, was that the physicians selected infirm inmates for easier work in Dachau. Other prisoners suspected more sinister motives, though no one was sure. But after several weeks had passed without further incident, many prisoners must have forgotten all about their examination by the mysterious doctors. None of them knew that their fate had already been sealed.4

Dr. Steinmeyer, Dr. Mennecke, and Dr. Hebold were no ordinary doctors. They were veterans of the “euthanasia” action, the Nazi program for the mass murder of the disabled. These physicians had long broken their Hippocratic Oath and came to Sachsenhausen not to heal but to kill: they judged most of the prisoners they examined as “life unworthy of life,” as the doctors called them, and reported them to the headquarters of the “euthanasia” program.5 After the files had been processed there, a final list of names was sent back to Sachsenhausen. Early on June 3, 1941, exactly two months after Steinmeyer and Mennecke had first visited the camp, the SS assembled the first ninety-five victims in the infirmary. Here they were injected with a sedative and forced onto a large truck, covered with a tarpaulin. Another 174 prisoners followed on two further transports a few days later. Among them was Siegbert Fraenkel, the Jewish art dealer, who feared the worst. Shortly before he left Sachsenhausen on June 5, he told the camp elder Harry Naujoks: “It is obvious; we’re being treated like doomed men.” Fraenkel was right. The truck brought him and the others to Sonnenstein asylum in Saxony, where they were all murdered on arrival.6

These murders were no one-off. When he came to Sachsenhausen in April 1941, Dr. Mennecke knew that this trip was only the beginning of his lethal service in the KL. By the time Siegbert Fraenkel and the other Sachsenhausen prisoners were murdered two months later, Mennecke had already completed his next round of selections, this time in Auschwitz, and over the coming months he would travel to Buchenwald, Dachau, Ravensbrück, Gross-Rosen, Flossenbürg, and Neuengamme.7 Thousands of prisoners were killed as a result.

The year 1941 was when the KL moved from mass death to mass extermination. From early autumn, with the killing of infirm inmates still in full swing, the Camp SS embarked on an even more radical program, murdering tens of thousands of Soviet POWs. The concentration camps turned into killing fields and annihilation became a way of life for the perpetrators, inaugurating a new period in the camps’ history: for the first time, Camp SS men participated in the coordinated slaughter of prisoners on a grand scale.


The Nazi “euthanasia” action had taken shape just before the outbreak of the Second World War, when Hitler authorized a secret program for the murder of the disabled. The men in charge were Hitler’s personal doctor Karl Brandt and Philipp Bouhler, the head of the Chancellery of the Führer. A marginal figure in the Nazi hierarchy, Bouhler saw mass murder as a chance to boost his standing, and entrusted the day-to-day management to his right-hand man Viktor Brack. Soon, the perpetrators had established an effective organization, working from headquarters in a Berlin villa on Tiergartenstrasse 4 (hence the code word of the “euthanasia” program, Operation T-4). German asylums were asked to submit special forms about their patients, with details about their condition. These forms were then dispatched to specially recruited doctors like Dr. Mennecke and Dr. Steinmeyer, who made the initial decision about the patients’ fate, cursorily reviewed by a senior physician like Professor Heyde. Their main focus was on the patients’ ability to work: anyone regarded as unproductive would be killed. But how?

The murderers considered several methods. Initially, they thought about lethal injections. But this was soon abandoned in favor of a different approach. Apparently backed by Hitler, the fateful decision was taken to kill the disabled with poison gas. In late 1939–early 1940, the SS set up a trial gassing in a former jail outside Berlin. Several disabled men were locked into a sealed room pumped full of carbon monoxide; they died under the watchful gaze of the top brass of the “euthanasia” action. Before long, the newly recruited T-4 staff ran several killing centers (mostly converted mental asylums), each with a gas chamber. Mass gassings of patients from across Germany only ceased in summer 1941, on Hitler’s orders, following growing public anxiety about the killings, which had become an open secret (the murders continued less conspicuously inside local asylums). By this time, some seventy to eighty thousand people had been murdered inside gas chambers, the “unique invention of Nazi Germany,” in the words of the historian Henry Friedlander, that would become central to the genocide of European Jews. Its first victims, though, were patients from asylums, and they were soon followed by KL inmates.8

“Euthanasia” and the Camps

Heinrich Himmler must have been appalled when he stepped inside Dachau on January 20, 1941, some nine months after his last visit, to lead a delegation of senior SS officials and Dutch Nazis.9 Anxious Camp SS officers always tried to gloss over difficulties during his inspections, but there was no way of hiding that his favorite camp was in crisis. The problem, as far as the local Camp SS was concerned, had started several months earlier, when Camp Inspector Richard Glücks, faced with an ever-growing number of ill and weak prisoners across the KL system, had designated Dachau as a collection point for Muselmänner. Previously, individual camps had isolated the sick inside special zones. Now Glücks planned to relieve other camps by concentrating the greatest misery in Dachau.10 Following Glücks’s order, thousands of sick men had arrived in Dachau from late summer 1940 onward. Between August 28 and September 16 alone, four large transports left Sachsenhausen, bringing four thousand invalid prisoners (mostly from the standing commandos) to Dachau; in exchange, the Dachau SS dispatched up to three thousand healthier inmates in the opposite direction.11 Smaller transports also came from other camps. On October 24, 1940, for example, the Buchenwald SS sent a special train to Dachau; the SS described all 371 men on board as “ill prisoners and cripples” who were “unfit for work.”12

Dachau turned into a nightmare. Bodies of Muselmänner who had died en route were dumped at the train station. Those who made it into the compound lay sprawled across the roll call square or inside specially cleared barracks. They were emaciated, often with frostbitten hands or feet, and covered in lice, edema, and pus-filled wounds; passing SS guards were surprised when these half-dead men still showed signs of life, crying, whimpering, and begging for mercy, or when they screamed in pain as others ripped off clothing that stuck to their scabs. Many suffered from acute dysentery and an infernal stench soon filled Dachau. The prisoner Alfred Hübsch vividly recalled the arrival of one of the “horror transports” from Sachsenhausen in early September 1940: “We saw dozens [of new prisoners] with excrement running out of their trousers. Their hands, too, were full of excrement and they screamed and rubbed their dirty hands across their faces. These soiled and sunken faces, with their protruding cheekbones, had something terrifying about them.” Too weak to walk and eat, many had come to Dachau only to die.13

In all, more than one thousand prisoners perished between September and December 1940; in four infernal months, around twice as many men had died in Dachau as in the seven prewar years. Then conditions got even worse. In January 1941, the month when Himmler visited, Dachau reached a new deadly record, as at least 463 prisoners lost their lives.14 At the same time, the camp was ravaged by scabies. An estimated four to five thousand men were infected in early 1941, almost half of the entire prisoner population. Many were isolated with no medical help, little food, and only bags of straw to sleep on. The prisoner Adam Kozlowiecki, a Polish cardinal who saw the sick on their way to their weekly bath, recorded their appearance in a secret diary: “Yellow skeletons with big, sad eyes. They looked at us. Some glances expressed a plea for help, others complete apathy.”15

The dirt and disease in Dachau dented Himmler’s ideal image of the KL, even if his subordinates shielded him from the worst during his visit on January 20, 1941. Himmler’s vision was about all-out order and cleanliness, and filthy invalids had no place in it; they were a drain on resources, a health risk, and an economic liability. Many Camp SS men agreed. As one of them explained in early 1941, all prisoners “who cannot work” and all “cripples” posed a “colossal burden” for the KL.16 By then, Camp SS leaders must have realized that the decision to turn Dachau into a dumping ground for the sick had backfired. Not only had it turned the old model camp into a pit, the situation in the other KL was little improved. True, prisoner mortality had fallen temporarily after sick prisoners left for Dachau.17 But their numbers soon grew again, and by early 1941 all SS concentration camps for men were full of dying inmates.18 Something had to be done.

Around the time of his trip to Dachau, Heinrich Himmler settled on a radical solution: invalid prisoners would be systematically exterminated.19 Mass murder was already in the air. Across the Third Reich and its newly conquered territories, Nazi leaders and their followers were getting used to murder as a solution to all kinds of “problems,” from political resistance to mental illness. As for weak and sick prisoners in the KL, many SS men were more than happy to see them die. According to a former inmate, the views of Dachau SS leaders about invalids in 1940 could be summed up as follows: “Let them croak—then we’ll be rid of them.”20 In fact, as we have seen, some local Camp SS men had already started to go further, murdering some weak and sick prisoners on their own initiative. In another case of “cumulative radicalization,” such unauthorized and ad hoc killings by overzealous local Camp SS men must have given an added spur to the new centralized program of murdering the infirm, with Himmler reasserting his authority as the final arbiter over life and death.21

To implement his plan, Himmler turned to the T-4 killing experts. Rumors that the “euthanasia” program would be extended to the KL had circulated in Germany since 1940.22 But Himmler did not settle things until early 1941, during discussions with Bouhler and Brack from the Chancellery of the Führer.23 It was convenient for Himmler to latch on to the “euthanasia” action. Here was a well-oiled machine that had already delivered tens of thousands to their deaths. Moreover, Himmler knew that he could trust the T-4 officials, many of whom were SS veterans (including several former Camp SS men who had been transferred from Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald to T-4 in late 1939). Some he knew personally: Viktor Brack had once worked as Himmler’s driver and Werner Heyde had overseen prisoner sterilizations in the prewar KL.24 Once Himmler had made his decision, he moved fast. After a further meeting with Brack on March 28, 1941—and possibly the final go-ahead from Hitler himself—the operation began, and just one week later, Dr. Mennecke and Dr. Steinmeyer set to work in Sachsenhausen.25

It is significant that Himmler decided to outsource the first extermination program of his prisoners to the T-4 killers, rather than leaving it to the Camp SS. We can only guess at his motives. Perhaps Himmler wanted his SS men to learn from the T-4 professionals before they turned their own hands to large-scale executions. Or perhaps he worried that mass slaughter inside the camps themselves might trigger prisoner uprisings, whereas killing invalids in faraway “euthanasia” centers meant that the remaining inmates might be deceived about the murderous turn of SS policy.26


Local Camp SS officers were initiated into the program by their superiors, who told them about Himmler’s orders to kill the invalids and the infirm. Although the local Camp SS did not act as executioner, it still had a crucial role to play: picking out inmates for the T-4 selections. The most important task, the IKL stressed, was to single out those “who are no longer able to work” (echoing provisions of the “euthanasia” program); among those who were specially targeted, a senior Auschwitz official recalled, were “cripples,” “incurables,” and “infectious prisoners.”27

Although the IKL issued some quotas for the total number of prisoners to be presented to the T-4 doctors, local Camp SS men had plenty of leeway when it came to their initial selections. In Dachau, for example, the SS forced prisoners from the various labor details to assemble on the roll call square; Camp SS leaders then noted the names of particularly weak and emaciated men, as well as those with disabilities, such as missing limbs or club feet. The Dachau SS chose yet more prisoners from so-called invalid blocks and the infirmary, forcing some Kapos to cooperate. Walter Neff, a prisoner orderly on the Dachau tuberculosis block, later acknowledged that he had picked out bedridden prisoners.28

Following the SS preparations, the T-4 doctors traveled to the camps, alone or in small groups. After the inaugural trip to Sachsenhausen in April 1941, the physicians visited most other camps, including Auschwitz (May 1941), Buchenwald (June and November–December 1941), Mauthausen (June–July 1941), Dachau (September 1941), Ravensbrück (November 1941 and January 1942), Gross-Rosen (January 1942), Flossenbürg (March 1942), and Neuengamme (April 1942).29 In all, a dozen or more T-4 doctors were involved.30 They were led by the senior medical “euthanasia” experts, Professor Werner Heyde and Professor Hermann Nitsche, who occasionally participated in the selections themselves. The others were mostly veterans from the T-4 program. Previously, men like Dr. Steinmeyer and Dr. Mennecke had visited mental asylums to select patients to die. Now they came to the camps.31

On arrival, the T-4 doctors were met by senior members of the local Camp SS—the commandant, his adjutant, or the camp physician—who briefed them about SS preparations.32 The T-4 physicians, who could move freely around the compound, sometimes demanded to see more prisoners than the SS had picked. The doctors’ power was a potential cause of friction with local Camp SS chieftains.33 But in practice, their relationship was largely cordial. They worked together and sometimes socialized, too, going for walks around the grounds to aid their digestion after lunch in the SS officers’ mess.34

During their selections, the T-4 doctors briefly studied the prisoner files. Then they completed a registration form for each inmate, which had been prepared by the SS, using the standard criteria developed for the “euthanasia” program. Most questions concerned the prisoner’s condition, asking about “Diagnosis,” “Main Symptoms,” and “Incurable Physical Ailments.”35 Normally, the doctors also took a cursory glance at the inmates, just as Dr. Mennecke and Dr. Steinmeyer had done in Sachsenhausen. One at a time, the prisoners, often undressed, were paraded before them; those unable to walk were carried. The doctors scribbled some notes on the forms; occasionally, they would also ask inmates about their background.36 Then the doctors turned to their next victims.

The selections were swift—like a “conveyor belt,” Dr. Mennecke noted in Dachau—and sped up as T-4 doctors gained experience. By November 1941, Mennecke needed less than three minutes to pass judgment on a prisoner, down from an average of eight minutes back in April. “The work is going with a real swing,” he informed his wife.37 Apparently, the T-4 doctors only spared a few of the prisoners they saw. It is not clear what swayed them, though it is likely that some First World War veterans were among those given a temporary reprieve.38 In the end, the decision by Mennecke and his colleagues came down to a snap judgment they entered into a box on the bottom left-hand corner of the form.39 The fate of each prisoner was determined by a quick stroke of the pen: “+” meant death, “-” meant life.40

The forms were reviewed by officials at T-4 headquarters in Berlin, who approved the final list of victims.41 This list was then dispatched to one of three “euthanasia” killing centers (Hartheim, Bernburg, or Sonnenstein) that liaised with the respective KL to organize the prisoner transports.42When the day came—often several months elapsed between selections and transports—Camp SS men accompanied the prisoners to the killing centers; the Mauthausen SS used a Mercedes omnibus and two yellow postal buses to ferry the victims to their deaths.43 The prisoners’ departure was reported by telex to the IKL in Oranienburg, which kept abreast of the whole operation.44

By the time the death transports arrived at the killing centers, many prisoners on board were suspicious and scared; the smell of burning flesh that sometimes hung over the institutions added to their alarm. As local T-4 staff took over from the SS men and checked the paperwork, some prisoners lied about their health or background, hoping that this might help them. A few others tried to run, only to be wrestled to the ground by SS men. There was no way out. Soon, the prisoners were led away, supposedly to the showers. After they had undressed and entered the gas chamber, the T-4 staff locked the door and pumped poison gas inside, from carbon monoxide steel cylinders supplied by IG Farben. Some victims began to vomit, shake, or scream, and struggled for air. After several minutes, the last ones fell unconscious, and some minutes later all were dead. After a while, the gas chamber was ventilated and the bodies dragged out by T-4 staff. They burned the corpses in an adjacent crematorium, but not before ripping out all gold fillings (prisoners had been marked before they went to their death). The gold was sent in batches to T-4 headquarters, which arranged for it to be melted down and sold on. According to one former official, this more or less covered the costs of the killings. The murder machine was self-financing, as victims paid for their own extermination.45

Doctors as Murderers

Like other T-4 doctors, Friedrich Mennecke reveled in his role. It has sometimes been suggested that enthusiastic henchmen like Mennecke led double lives to cope with their grisly deeds. Mass murderers in the camps and loving husbands at home, they are said to have erected an impenetrable barrier between professional and private lives.46 Nothing could be further from the truth in Mennecke’s case, as his copious correspondence reveals. Whenever he was away from home, he bombarded his wife with postcards and letters;like an obsessive bookkeeper of his own life, no detail was too small to ignore, from his bowel movements in the morning to his choice of dessert wine after dinner.47 The letters dating from his time in the camps show that SS Hauptsturmführer Mennecke saw no reason to deceive his wife, who, like him, was a committed National Socialist. He even joked about his murderous mission: “Let the next happy hunt begin!!” he scribbled one morning in November 1941 as he set off for Buchenwald.48 Far from drawing a line between his work and private life, Mennecke pleaded with his wife to join him—and she did, more than once, accompanying him on his trips to Buchenwald, Ravensbrück, and Gross-Rosen.49

Friedrich Mennecke took great pride in his work, which allowed him to rub shoulders with eminent doctors and senior Nazi officials; he proudly informed his wife whenever his superiors praised him.50 And he was fiercely competitive, rejoicing whenever he managed to finish more forms than his colleagues (“He who works fast saves time!”). Throughout his time in the KL, Mennecke did not suffer any obvious pangs of conscience, sleeping soundly and eating well. If anything, the selections of starving prisonersseemed to whet his appetite. “This morning, we worked really hard again,” he reported about his stint in Buchenwald on November 29, 1941. By eleven o’clock, he had completed seventy forms and felt hungry. He walked over to the SS canteen and devoured “a huge meat dumpling (not a burger), salted potatoes and cabbage, plus sauce.”51

His verbosity aside, Dr. Mennecke cut no exceptional figure among the T-4 physicians. Mass murder seems to have come easy to them. Like Mennecke, the others saw the killings as an opportunity—an important step for the Third Reich and an important step for their own careers. What is more, they did not have to execute the death sentences they signed, quickly moving on to the next KL. The general atmosphere during these trips was friendly and collegial, as the T-4 men often shared the same hotels and socialized, drawing on their expense accounts. From the outside, they must have appeared like salesmen on a business trip. And this impression was not entirely wrong; it was just that their business was death.

The mood of T-4 doctors was particularly buoyant in early September 1941, when they met in Munich for their biggest mission yet, in nearby Dachau. The situation inside was largely unchanged since Himmler’s visit in January: no other KL held more sick and dying men. This was why, presumably, the camp was only targeted now, after the murderous operation was fully up and running.52 In late summer 1941, the Dachau Camp SS selected two thousand prisoners to be presented to the T-4 commission; many of them had arrived on “invalid transports” from other camps. To guarantee the speedy examination of these prisoners, T-4 managers mobilized at least seven physicians, headed by Professors Heyde and Nitsche themselves; the latter was determined to make the most of his trip to southern Germany and brought along his wife and daughter, who went on an excursion to the Alps. The T-4 officials, meanwhile, paid a preparatory visit to Dachau on September 3, 1941. Because the SS had not yet completed all its paperwork, the doctors stayed only briefly and took the rest of the day off. Dr. Mennecke, Professor Nitsche, and a few others took advantage of the sunshine and strolled along the scenic Lake Starnberg. They did some more sightseeing back in Munich, before moving on to dinner. Afterward, the group split; most doctors went to the movies, while Mennecke and his friend Steinmeyer carried on drinking in a popular wine bar. The next morning, the group went back to Dachau to begin the selections.53

Inside Dachau, the T-4 doctors acted professionally, corresponding to their self-image as men of Nazi science. To deceive the prisoners about their ultimate fate, they put on a farce, just as they had previously done in other camps. They approached the inmates calmly and politely, in deliberate contrast to the Camp SS. One T-4 official even made a show of chastising a young Dachau block leader for his brutality, to the amazement of onlooking prisoners. The doctors behaved in “a very odd and completely unprecedented” manner, Karel Kašák wrote in his secret notes in September 1941—perhaps the beginning of a better life for the prisoners, he speculated.54 Such hopes were raised further after the T-4 doctors promised the selected prisoners that they would be taken to a camp with light work and better conditions.55 This chimed with claims by Camp SS men, who also painted a rosy picture of transfers to sanatoria, hospitals, and recuperation camps.56 All these lies were designed to make the doomed prisoners compliant. Just as during the general “euthanasia” action, the plan was to leave the victims in the dark until the moment they were killed; even the gas chambers were disguised as washrooms, complete with tiles, benches, and showerheads.57

It was not just the prisoners who were deceived. The whole operation was shrouded in secrecy to prevent the spread of public rumors of the kind that had disrupted the general “euthanasia” program.58 In line with this covert nature, T-4 doctors like Mennecke received most of their instructions during face-to-face meetings and telephone calls.59 Meanwhile, SS officials inside the camps had to sign a written pledge to keep silent about the operation.60 There was no more open talk of murder in the internal correspondence either, as there had been during the first KL executions in September 1939. When it came to the mass murder of invalid prisoners, the officials used a code name, Action 14f13 (insiders immediately recognized its significance: on Camp SS paperwork, the prefix “14f” always referred to the death of prisoners).61 Naturally, the rule of secrecy applied to the victims’ relatives, too. Camp SS doctors sometimes wrote letters with fake medical details, adding condolences about the sudden deaths and assurances that everything had been done to save the deceased (there was no such subterfuge in the case of Jewish prisoners; here, a curt notification of death was considered enough).62

Despite these provisions, Action 14f13 did not proceed as smoothly as the perpetrators planned. There was plenty of improvisation and confusion, as the following example of selections in Ravensbrück shows. On the afternoon of November 19, 1941, Dr. Friedrich Mennecke—seen by his T-4 superiors as the concentration camp specialist—arrived in the town of Fürstenberg near the camp. He came straight from Berlin, where he had met with Professors Heyde and Nitsche to confirm his itinerary for the coming weeks. After dropping off his suitcase in a local hotel, Mennecke walked to the camp and briefly talked with the adjutant, who told him that the SS had identified a total of 259 prisoners for the examination. Afterward, Mennecke discussed the next steps with Commandant Max Koegel over coffee and beer in the SS mess hall, and then strolled back into town.

Early the next day, Mennecke called Heyde in Berlin to tell him that he would carry out his assignment without the help of other T-4 doctors. He then returned to Ravensbrück and examined the first ninety-five women, who had to appear naked before him. He also held another meeting with Koegel and the camp doctor, convincing them that a further sixty to seventy prisoners should be included. All seemed to be going according to plan, and Mennecke was even more pleased with himself than usual as he returned to his hotel. But later in the evening, he was surprised by the arrival of two colleagues who brought news from Berlin: T-4 leader Viktor Brack had given instructions for a vast two thousand prisoners to be examined in Ravensbrück—around one in every four inmates. Mennecke immediately dispatched a letter to his wife to complain about the administrative chaos. “Nobody cares if that many [prisoners] actually fall under the general guidelines!” he grumbled.

Next morning, the three physicians went to Ravensbrück for a meeting with the commandant about the new directives. Before the expanded selections really got started, however, Heyde called and ordered the two doctors, who had only just arrived, back to T-4 headquarters. The two men were furious and Mennecke, who worked alone again, also fumed about the “height of Berlin incompetence.” One day later, on November 22, 1941, Mennecke received yet another call from the headquarters, informing him that Heyde now expected the Ravensbrück Camp SS to prepare the paperwork on some 1,200 to 1,500 prisoners by mid-December—the fourth target figure in three days. He dutifully passed the message to Commandant Koegel during a final meeting on Monday, November24, 1941, before leaving for Buchenwald. By then, Mennecke had examined almost three hundred women. Once the Ravensbrück SS had picked out the additional prisoners (including men from the local subcamp), Mennecke returned on January 5, 1942, to finish the job. He selected hundreds more to die, completing 850 forms in little more than a week. The first transport left the camp in the following month, probably for the killing center in Bernburg.63

Dr. Mennecke’s murderous mission to Ravensbrück highlights the ad hoc aspects of Action 14f13. At the same time, it marked a significant moment in the treatment of female prisoners. Previously, the women in Ravensbrück had been spared some of the most deadly SS excesses. Now they were included in the KL extermination policy, although some differences between the sexes remained. Proportionally, the Ravensbrück SS presented far more male prisoners to Mennecke than female ones, probably a reflection of the devastating conditions inside the small compound for men. This highlights another important element of the murderous program: its divergent impact on different prisoner groups. Once again, suffering in the KL was not equal.64

Extending Action 14f13

Did Ferdinand (Faybusch) Itzkewitsch have any idea—as he boarded a truck with ninety-two other Buchenwald prisoners in mid-July 1941—that he only had a few hours to live? A forty-nine-year-old Russian Jew who settled as a shoemaker in Germany after the First World War, Itzkewitsch had been held in Buchenwald since 1938, following a prison sentence for “race defilement” (he was convicted for his long-term relationship with his German partner). He had hoped in vain to be released and to emigrate, suffering untold horrors in the camp. But in a letter of June 29, 1941, he still tried to sound upbeat, telling his teenage son that “I am doing well, health-wise” and asking for a quick reply. He probably expected that he would soon leave the camp. Two weeks earlier, he hadbeen among around two hundred prisoners selected by T-4 doctors (Itzkewitsch was presumably picked because of a physical disability). Many Buchenwald inmates had been alarmed by these examinations, after one of the T-4 doctors, Bodo Gorgass, had deviated from the usual script. As Dr. Mennecke noted when he came to Buchenwald a few months later, his coarse colleague “is said to have behaved like a butcher, not like a doctor, damaging the reputation of our action.” To calm the prisoners, Buchenwald SS men promised that there was nothing to fear, as the selected men would be taken to a recuperation camp. Not all inmates were fooled. But there were plenty who wanted to believe the lies; the weaker the prisoners were, the harder they clung to the SS fairy tales. In the end, many men who left Buchenwald in mid-July 1941, on two separate transports, must have still had some hope of being saved. But all of them, including Ferdinand Itzkewitsch, were gassed in Sonnenstein.65

As Action 14f13 continued, the wall of deception inside the concentration camps began to crumble. Some prisoners heard about the murders from SS men who could not bite their tongue.66 Several Kapos, meanwhile, learned the truth after the SS brought back the victims’ clothes and other possessions. Not long after the lethal transport of Ferdinand Itzkewitsch to Sonnenstein, Rudolf Gottschalk, a prisoner clerk in the Buchenwald infirmary, saw the SS return with dentures, spectacles, and crutches. Later Gottschalk was ordered to prepare death certificates for all the departed men. When he asked about their cause of death, the Camp SS doctor handed him a medical dictionary and said “just pick out what you need”; in Itzkewitsch’s case, he chose “pneumonia.”67 The news about the prisoners’ true fate quickly made the rounds in Buchenwald, just as it spread through other KL after the first transports. Many inmates were shocked. The Camp SS, they felt, had crossed a threshold. Prisoners knew their captors to be capable of heinous crimes, but few, it seems, had expected them to turn to systematic mass murder.68 From now on, no one volunteered for transports to the so-called sanatoria, as had sometimes happened in the past, and those who were selected desperately tried to get struck off the lists, though with little hope of success.69

Just as prisoners’ awareness of Action 14f13 grew over time, so did T-4 selections. In line with Himmler’s original orders, selections initially focused on sick, weak, and disabled prisoners—all those written off as unproductive. The victims’ national backgrounds varied from camp to camp, depending on the local makeup of the prisoner population. In Gusen, for example, Poles and Spaniards were in the great majority when the T-4 commission arrived in summer 1941, and consequently accounted for almost all the victims.70Dachau, by contrast, still held a large number of German men, and they made up almost half of those selected to die by the T-4 doctors in September 1941.71

Although every infirm prisoner was threatened by Action 14f13, some were more likely to be killed than others. Sick and weak “asocials” and “criminals” were specially targeted, it seems, perhaps because the SS saw their inability to work as confirmation of their “work-shy” nature.72Criminality figured prominently on the official forms, and the T-4 doctors, who had already considered deviance an aggravating factor during earlier “euthanasia” selections in asylums, now appeared to apply similar rules to the KL.73Summing up his impression of the inmates he had selected in Sachsenhausen in April 1941, Dr. Mennecke informed his wife that they were all, without exception, “‘antisocials’—to the highest degree.”74

The hunt for the infirm hit many prisoners at the bottom of the SS hierarchy, since they were generally in the worst state of health. This was true for social outsiders, and it was even truer for Jewish inmates, outcasts in all the concentration camps. Since the war began, Jews had swelled the ranks of the dying, and by 1941, only a few men with the yellow star were not injured, ill, or starving. Once Himmler launched Action 14f13, the weakest Jewish prisoners, and those with disabilities, like Ferdinand Itzkewitsch and Siegbert Fraenkel, were doomed.75 They were conspicuous not only because of their physical condition. T-4 doctors had already become used to racial mass murder, overseeing the killing of all Jewish patients during the general “euthanasia” program. When it came to the selection of invalids in the KL, a prisoner’s Jewish background must have often tipped the scale.76 Consequently, Jews made up a disproportionately large number of victims; forty-five percent of the 187 Buchenwald prisoners gassed in Sonnenstein in mid-July 1941 were Jews like Ferdinand Itzkewitsch, even though Jews only made up seventeen percent of the camp’s prisoner population.77

Still, during the initial T-4 selections in the concentration camps in spring and summer 1941, medical matters generally outweighed ideological ones. The fact that a prisoner wore a yellow, green, or black triangle—marking him as Jewish, criminal, or asocial—was an aggravating factor, but what counted above all else was his state of health, as we can see when looking more closely at the summer 1941 selections in Buchenwald: although Jews were far more likely to be picked out than most other prisoners, the T-4 doctors sentenced only a fraction—around six percent of all Jewish inmates, many of them elderly—to death.78 The other Jews in Buchenwald were left untouched by the killing program, though not for very long.

Sometime in autumn 1941, the leaders of Action 14f13 stepped up the murder of Jewish prisoners: from now on, almost all Jews in the KL would be assessed by the T-4 doctors.79 This new approach was no doubt linked to the recent escalation of general Nazi anti-Jewish policy; in summer 1941 Himmler’s SS and police units had begun to murder hundreds of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children in the occupied east, and the regime was closing in on Jews elsewhere.80 In turn, the terror against Jewish KL prisoners intensified, too. Several months before the Nazi regime embarked on the systematic extermination of European Jews, almost all Jews held inside concentration camps were regarded as candidates for the T-4 gas chambers.

The new priorities of T-4 doctors were revealed when they returned to Buchenwald for a second round of selections in November 1941.81 During their first visit, five months earlier, the doctors had only examined a small proportion of the prisoner population. This time, Dr. Mennecke told his wife on November 26, things were different. In addition to the regular selections, the doctors would determine the fate of 1,200 Jewish men—more than eighty-five percent of all Jewish prisoners in Buchenwald.82 To save time, the doctors abandoned the individual assessments of Jews. Mennecke explained that “none of them will be ‘examined’”; he would base his judgments solely on prisoner files.83 In the end, 384 Buchenwald prisoners were taken to the Bernburg gas chamber between March 2 and 14, 1942. Every single one of them was Jewish; in less than two weeks, more than a quarter of all Buchenwald Jews were murdered, setting the standard for future T-4 selections.84

How did Mennecke and other T-4 doctors choose their Jewish victims in late 1941–42? Physical condition continued to play a part: many prisoners were elderly and infirm.85 But T-4 doctors also included a number of Jews who could still work.86 In these cases, the physicians were guided by other criteria. As Mennecke admitted after the war, he condemned some Jewish prisoners who had still been in reasonable health; their selection had nothing to do with medical matters and everything to do with racial policy.87

Dr. Mennecke’s thinking can be reconstructed from notes he made on the back of prisoner photographs (he was planning a publication on Nazi racial science). Recovered after the war, all the photos appear to show Jewish KL inmates, several of whom are known to have died in T-4 gas chambers.88 None of Mennecke’s comments referred to their health. Instead, he made copious notes on their anti-Nazi views, especially in the case of foreigners; “extraordinarily impertinent and spiteful comments about Germans,” he remarked in one case. Mennecke was even more exercised by “asocial” behavior, particularly by what he saw as moral deviance. Most Jewish women selected by Mennecke for his photo collection were accused of sex with German men (“race defilement with German soldiers, like on a conveyor belt”) and around half of them were labeled as prostitutes (“pure-bred Jewish whore with venereal disease”). He regarded these women with leering revulsion, cataloging their supposed promiscuity and degeneracy (“sexually impulsive and insatiable Jewess”). Mennecke applied his moral judgments to men, too; in Buchenwald, almost all Jewish men presumed to be homosexual were sent to the gas chambers.89 Finally, Mennecke took note of the Camp SS verdict on the prisoner’s conduct. Eduard Radinger, for example, a thirty-four-year-old tailor’s assistant from Vienna, was accused of “gambling, laziness, impertinence.” This may well have helped to condemn him to death, as Mennecke apparently placed a “+” next to his name. On March 12, 1942, after having spent almost three years in the KL, first as a “work-shy Jew” and later as a Jewish “protective custody” prisoner, Radinger was deported from Buchenwald to Bernburg, together with 104 other Jewish men, and gassed.90

The Camp SS Takes Charge

Not long after the extension of Action 14f13 in late 1941, the Nazi authorities cut it back. Dr. Mennecke, accompanied by other T-4 doctors, made his final trip to the KL in spring 1942, calling at Flossenbürg and Neuengamme; the last transport of victims left Neuengamme for the Bernburg killing center in June 1942. This marked the end of the operation in its original setup, twelve months after the first prisoners—Siegbert Fraenkel and the other men from Sachsenhausen—had been murdered.91 Inside a year, some 6,500 or more concentration camp prisoners had died in the T-4 gas chambers.92

The commandants were informed about the curtailment of Action 14f13 on March 26, 1942, in a secret communication. Arthur Liebehenschel from the IKL announced that the slaughter, which he referred to as “special treatment,” had to be scaled down. The general rules of the program had been disregarded, he claimed, with the SS presenting too many prisoners to the T-4 commissions. From now on, Liebehenschel stressed, only prisoners who were permanently unable to work should be sent to their deaths. All others—including the sick who could regain some strength—would be held back to “carry out the labor tasks given to the concentration camps.”93 At first glance, this apparent reversal of policy was caused by a recent shift in SS priorities; in spring 1942, Heinrich Himmler demanded that the KL make a greater economic contribution to the German war effort (chapter 8), prompting Camp SS managers like Liebehenschel to scramble to stay on message.

In reality, however, the demise of Action 14f13 was not about economics at all.94 Rather, the marriage of convenience between Camp SS and T-4 had come to an end. The focus of the T-4 organization had shifted to a far bigger program of mass extermination—the Holocaust. By spring 1942, many officials had already relocated to occupied eastern Europe, where they were in great demand for the new death camps at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka; in comparison, the murder of KL prisoners in the “euthanasia” killing centers inside Germany lost its significance.

The Camp SS, meanwhile, did not need the T-4 killers anymore. In recent months, SS men had proven themselves as professional mass murderers in their own right, with Muselmänner among their prime targets. While thousands of weak and sick prisoners were being selected for the T-4 gas chambers, local Camp SS men had started to murder many more on the spot during the second half of 1941.95 Previously, such SS murders of invalid inmates inside the KL had been sporadic. Now they became systematic and soon superseded Action 14f13. Although some more prisoner transports still went to the external T-4 gas chambers later in 1942, before they closed down, most murders now took place inside the concentration camps.96

Why did local Camp SS men embark on mass executions of infirm prisoners, in parallel to the coordinated T-4 program? Partly because they could. Their initial experiences during Action 14f13 had taught them that it would be safe to move to executions inside the KL. Fears about prisoner unrest had proved unfounded; the T-4 selections continued without a hitch, despite the growing prisoner awareness of the murders. Also, the local Camp SS must have seen practical benefits; murdering Muselmänner inside the KL meant no more doctors’ commissions, deportations, and delays. Furthermore, SS men believed that they had the right to kill. Once Himmler had sanctioned the mass murder of the infirm by launching Action 14f13, the local Camp SS saw little reason to hold back. The dynamic had been the same in autumn 1939, when Himmler’s central execution policy set off a spate of local killings. Once again, radical actions taken at the top of the SS state triggered a radical response from below, ratcheting up terror inside the camps.

The scene of the first Camp SS massacre of Muselmänner was Buchenwald. Following the arrival of two prisoner transports from Dachau in July 1941, Buchenwald SS men felt overwhelmed by infirm inmates and feared that some of the newcomers carried infections. The local SS decided to kill the invalids, and rather than wait for the return of the T-4 commission, went ahead on its own. Several hundred exhausted prisoners were isolated in the infirmary, as suspected carriers of TB, and murdered by an SS doctor with lethal injections.97

Other concentration camps followed suit during the second half of 1941. SS men in different camps explored different killing methods, as the spirit of lethal experimentation became all-pervasive. In Gusen, for example, hundreds of weak and emaciated prisoners were killed during so-called “bathing actions.” Directed by the terrifying camp leader Karl Chmielewski, the Gusen SS forced the prisoners under freezing showers for thirty minutes or more; some drowned in the standing water, others succumbed to hypothermia, with the screams of the dying men echoing across the compound.98 Camp SS men elsewhere used other ways to murder the infirm, with lethal injections—either intravenously or straight into the heart—emerging as the SS favorite. The main drug of choice was phenol; when it was unavailable, SS doctors often injected air instead. The Ravensbrück camp doctor Rolf Rosenthal recalled that, when he witnessed the lethal injection of a female prisoner after his arrival in January 1942, he was told that “this was always administered when people were very ill and incurable.”99

By 1942, the systematic murder of exhausted, weak, and ill prisoners had become a permanent feature of the KL. Sometimes local Camp SS officials would pick their victims within days of arrival.100 More commonly, the prisoners were pulled out during regular selections in infirmaries. Doctors played a major role here, just as they had done during Action 14f13; but this time it was Camp SS physicians who sent the prisoners to their deaths, not outsiders like Dr. Mennecke.101

Although the mass murder of Muselmänner was decentralized, it was sanctioned and probably encouraged by senior IKL managers. Previously, the Oranienburg officials had insisted on steering such killings—as during Action 14f13. But in view of the growing number of sick prisoners, they must have concluded that managing all murders was impossible and relaxed the rules. According to an internal SS document, camp doctors were now authorized to kill “on their own initiative” those prisoners who were “incurably ill,” “ridden with epidemics,” or “suspected of suffering from an epidemic disease.”102

To retain some central control, Camp SS managers in October 1942 revived the plan of turning Dachau into a collection camp for “physically weak prisoners who are not fit for use”; this time, all these prisoners were slated for extermination.103 Over the coming weeks and months, manyMuselmänner from other KL arrived in Dachau to die.104 Some perished in transit.105 The most appalling transport arrived on November 19, 1942, with several hundred men on board. It had set off days earlier from Stutthof and the prisoners, crammed into cattle cars, had received almost no food since. When the doors opened at the Dachau SS compound, dozens of corpses lay inside. The dead were dumped inside the camp, together with the soiled survivors, some so starved that their shoulder blades protruded like wings. Even the cruelest SS block leaders “turned away in disgust,” Karel Kašák wrote in his notes. Dozens of the new arrivals are said to have died within hours; at least one of them was killed by an SS guard, who stepped on his throat until he suffocated.106

Few prisoners who arrived in Dachau on so-called invalid transports in 1942 lived for very long. Those who defied illness, hunger, and neglect were killed after SS selections, apparently by lethal injection.107 Another method of mass murder considered by the Dachau SS was poison gas. The construction of a gas chamber was under way since spring 1942, and its primary purpose, it seems, was the extermination of weak and sick prisoners, though it remains unclear whether this facility was ever put to use.108 Dachau would not have been the first KL to kill invalid inmates with gas; by autumn 1942, SS men in several other camps had already done so.109 The main target of these experiments with poison gas had not been Muselmänner, however, but Soviet prisoners of war, who began to arrive in the thousands from late summer 1941 onward.


Early on June 22, 1941, German troops invaded the Soviet Union—Operation Barbarossa, the biggest and most devastating military campaign ever, had begun. German forces, more than three million men strong, initially advanced rapidly and left death and destruction in their wake.110 Hitler had long dreamed about this moment, picturing a decisive showdown with “Jewish Bolsheviks” that would determine Germany’s destiny. More than two months before the invasion, he told his generals to prepare for an all-out war of extermination.111 From June 1941, the German army realized Hitler’s order, flanked by specially trained SS and police killing units, such as the task forces. At the same time, the German authorities were drawing up plans for the long-term occupation of the Soviet Union, which were gigantic in scale and genocidal in intent, condemning many millions of civilians to death by starvation.112

There was no mercy for captured Soviet soldiers either. Hitler regarded them as no better than animals—dumb, dangerous, and depraved—and the German Army High Command decided even before the invasion that the conventional rules of warfare would not apply to them (in contrast to POWs on the Western Front).113 Entire armies of Soviet prisoners perished in German hands. “The more of these prisoners die, the better for us,” crowed some senior Nazi officials. In all, an estimated three to five hundred thousand Soviet POWs died each month between October and December 1941. Most of them wasted away in POW camps, starving and freezing to death in makeshift tents and muddy holes. Other Soviet soldiers were murdered elsewhere, including concentration camps, after the Nazi war of extermination entered the KL.114

Searching for Commissars

Hitler and his generals were obsessed with Soviet commissars; among all the enemies they saw lurking in the east, the commissar was one of the fiercest, an almost mythical figure. Nazi leaders were convinced that savage and fanatical commissars, as the personification of “Jewish Bolshevism,” would force their troops to fight to the end and commit untold acts of cruelty against German soldiers. To preempt such atrocities and to break the Soviet resistance, the German Army High Command on June 6, 1941, ordered the execution of all “political commissars” who acted against German troops. This order, which found widespread support among the fiercely anti-Bolshevik German officer corps, was applied very widely—on the battlefields and in the rear, against combatants and captives—and thereby contributed to the erosion of the boundaries between front line and occupied territory.115

Himmler’s police and SS apparatus was closely involved in the executions. To make sure that no commissars slipped through the net, the RSHA dispatched special police units to search for “politically unacceptable” Soviet prisoners in POW and labor camps. The list of suspects was as long as it was vague, including not just alleged commissars and party officials, but also “fanatical Communists,” “the Soviet-Russian intelligentsia,” and “all Jews.” After these enemies had been identified among the mass of POWs, Reinhard Heydrich ordered in mid-July 1941, they would be exterminated.116

Armed with Heydrich’s order, police commandos swarmed all over POW camps. The policemen briefly interrogated suspects about their identity and activities; if they did not get the right answers, the officials would turn to violence and torture. In addition, they used intelligence provided by prisoner informers who hoped to save their own lives. Grigorij Efimovitsch Ladik, for example, was betrayed by one of his comrades. Interrogated by his captors in a POW camp, Ladik admitted that he had previously lied about his background: “I gave a wrong account of my personal details because I was frightened that I would be recognized as a political leader and shot” (he was executed soon after). Such confessions were rare, however. Far more often, Heydrich’s policemen relied on guesswork and prejudice. Most of them did not even understand the term “intelligentsia.” But they did know how to abuse and humiliate their victims. Soldiers suspected of being Jewish, for instance, were forced to strip to determine if they were circumcised, sealing the fate of many Jews, as well as Muslims.117 After the policemen completed their selections inside a POW camp, they reported all suspects—sometimes more than twenty percent of all examined prisoners—for execution, with Jewish POWs, widely suspected of being synonymous with commissars, more likely to be murdered than non-Jews.118

The doomed men were isolated while the perpetrators awaited further instructions.119 Most of the victims were young, largely in their twenties, and came from a wide range of backgrounds. The vast majority were regular soldiers, including many peasants and industrial workers—a far cry from the satanic commissar of the Nazi imagination.120 To pick just one example: among a group of 410 Soviet POWs selected for execution, the Gestapo described only three as “functionaries and officers.” The rest were rank-and-file men; 25 were classed as “Jews,” 69 as members of the “intelligentsia,” 146 as “fanatical communists,” 85 as “agitators, troublemakers, thieves,” 35 as “escapees,” and 47 as “incurably ill.”121

When it came to the execution of “commissars” in the occupied east, the RSHA was rather relaxed; there were so many massacres, a few more hardly mattered. The only rule was that killings were carried out in some seclusion, away from the POW camps themselves.122 The situation was rather different inside the Third Reich, where the authorities had established additional POW and labor camps. So as not to alarm the German public, Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller ordered on July 21, 1941, that selected commissars should be killed “inconspicuously in the nearest concentration camp.”123 Continuing the SS practice of camouflaging programs of mass murder, the new program was code-named Action 14f14.

The first Soviet POWs arrived in concentration camps in early autumn 1941. Most transports were rather small, consisting of around twenty prisoners or so; others were much larger, however, taking hundreds to their deaths. Many victims never even reached theKL. After weeks or months in German army camps, they did not survive the long hours shackled together inside freight trains; others collapsed during the march from railway stations to the camps.124 In Sachsenhausen, the deadliest such train arrived on October 11, 1941, from a POW camp in Pomerania, nearly two hundred miles away; out of some six hundred “commissars” on board, sixty-three had perished.125

The deaths during transports caused concern among the Camp SS, and in autumn 1941 a complaint by commandants that between five and ten percent of Soviet POWs were dead or dying on arrival reached Gestapo boss Müller. The commandants feared that the semipublic deaths of POWs would sully the SS reputation among the local population.126 These concerns were not entirely unfounded, for popular reactions were quite different from the whipped-up frenzy during the arrival of Polish “snipers” back in autumn 1939. Some ordinary Germans were shocked by the lethal treatment of Soviet prisoners. In November 1941, a German teacher wrote in his diary what he had heard about the arrival of Russians in Neuengamme: “They were completely starved, so much so that some fell off the truck and staggered limply toward the barracks.”127 Heinrich Müller was worried enough about public opinion to order an end to the transports of Soviet POWs who were, as he put it, “about to die anyway.”128 This did not save the “commissars,” of course. They had already been condemned. The only question was where they would die—in a POW camp, in transit, or in a KL.

Most Soviet “commissars” who made it to the concentration camps were executed within days. Unlike other new prisoners, they were not even properly registered. In the eyes of the Camp SS, there was no need; they were already dead. Most KL turned to mass killing in autumn 1941 and continued until the following spring or summer, when the German authorities officially rescinded the commissar order, for tactical reasons, and scaled down selections in POW camps; by then, forty thousand or more Soviet “commissars” had been dispatched to the concentration camps for execution.129 Almost all of them were men, with the women’s camp in Ravensbrück among the few untouched KL.130 The systematic mass extermination of Soviet “commissars” was a cataclysmic moment in the camps’ history, dwarfing all previous killing campaigns. For the first time, the Camp SS carried out executions on a vast scale. Sachsenhausen stood at the center of the slaughter: during a frenzied two-month period in September and October 1941, SS men executed around nine thousand Soviet POWs, far more than in any other KL.131

Death in Sachsenhausen

Sometime in August 1941, a group of leading Camp SS men came together for a secret meeting in the Sachsenhausen office of Hans Loritz, the longest-serving SS commandant. Loritz and some of his men were joined by Inspector Richard Glücks from the nearby IKL and his chief of staff Arthur Liebehenschel, who took the minutes. But all eyes were on the special guest of honor—Theodor Eicke.132 As commander of the SS Death’s Head division, Eicke had been involved in heavy fighting during the German attack on the Soviet Union and was wounded in Latvia on the night of July 6–7, 1941, when his car hit a mine.133 Recovering at his villa on the edge of the SS grounds in Oranienburg, Eicke had made the short trip to Sachsenhausen, where his former subordinates—who idolized him even more now that he was a decorated military commander—welcomed him with open arms. They also knew that he still had a direct line to Himmler. The Reichsführer SS regarded Eicke as one of his “most faithful friends” and met him twice in late summer 1941, just as the killing of Soviet commissars in the KL was getting under way. In fact, it was probably Himmler who had authorized Eicke to initiate the Sachsenhausen SS.134

At the meeting in Sachsenhausen in August 1941, Eicke took the floor to announce the program to murder Soviet POWs. Typically, Eicke presented the Third Reich as the victim of a subhuman enemy who had left it no choice but to strike back. Gustav Sorge, the leader of the Sachsenhausen death squad, later summarized Eicke’s speech: “In retaliation for the shooting of German soldiers in Soviet captivity, the Führer had approved a request by the Wehrmacht High Command and agreed to a retaliation action … by shooting prisoners, namely commissars and supporters of the Soviet Communist Party.” The words were given added weight by the reference to Hitler and by the wounds Eicke had sustained on the Eastern Front, still visible to all.135

After Eicke’s general introduction, the talk turned to practical matters. The Camp SS leaders apparently discussed various ways of mass killing, trying to surpass one another with ever more ingenious proposals.136 In the end, they chose a new method, which required the construction of a special execution chamber, and designated Sachsenhausen block leaders to carry out the killings; it seems that the men were inducted into their tasks that day, followed by a round of drinks to mark the occasion.137 The preparation for mass murder in Sachsenhausen quickly began. Supervised by SS men, prisoners from the joinery workshop turned a barn on the so-called industry yard into an execution barrack, using plans supplied by Commandant Loritz.138 Once it was completed, the SS made two trial runs, murdering a small number of Soviet prisoners.139 Then the apparatus went into full operation.

The first mass transport of Soviet “commissars” arrived in Sachsenhausen on August 31, 1941, from the Hammerstein POW camp (Eicke met up with Himmler on the same day). The transport was made up of almost five hundred soldiers, mostly from around Minsk, and included a large number of Jews. Thousands more men followed over the coming weeks.140 The new prisoners were confused and scared; far from home on enemy soil, they did not know where they were and what would happen to them. Despite their youth—some soldiers were no more than fifteen years old—many looked utterly worn out. They were clad in dirty and torn clothes, with trousers held up by string, and soiled bandages covering their wounds. Instead of shoes, many had rags on their feet or went barefoot.141

Some Sachsenhausen guards saw the endless procession of misery as proof of the prisoners’ savage nature. SS officials even took pictures for propaganda purposes (a practice established in the prewar camps); a few of the images were later reprinted in the SS publication The Subhuman, which pointed its readers to the “caricatures of human faces, nightmares that have become reality.”142 In reality, the SS men were the savages. Block leaders dished out brutal beatings and locked the prisoners into two bare barracks cut off from the rest of the camp by barbed wire. To increase the isolation, the windows were painted over.143

After the recent arrivals spent a grim spell in these isolation barracks, lasting no more than a few days, SS block leaders collected them, usually in small groups of a few dozen men, and drove them on canvas-covered trucks to the execution barrack, which was shut off from the rest of the camp by a wooden fence. Taking their cue from Action 14f13, the Camp SS left its victims in the dark until the end. Following a medical exam, the SS told the prisoners, they would be taken to a better place. But the victims went straight to their deaths. Inside the barrack was a large room, where the SS ordered all prisoners to undress, before leading the first man to an adjacent, smaller room, furnished like a doctor’s office; it looked like a small stage set, complete with medical instruments and anatomical charts. Here an SS man dressed in a white coat was waiting, posing as a physician. While he pretended to carry out a brief physical examination, he checked whether the prisoner had any gold fillings; those who did were marked with a cross (another practice borrowed from the “euthanasia” killings). Then the prisoner was led next door to an even smaller room, which resembled a bathroom with shower heads on the ceiling. An SS man ordered the prisoner to stand with his back against a measuring pole fixed to the wall. A small gap in the pole allowed another SS man—hidden in an adjoining booth—to aim his gun at the prisoner’s neck. Once the prisoner was in place, the killer received a signal and pulled the trigger. Judging by the gaping holes in the victims’ skulls, the SS used special dumdum bullets.

After the body slumped to the floor, another door opened. Kapos from the crematorium commando appeared and dragged the corpse to the makeshift morgue in the barrack’s last room. Wearing rubber gloves, they ripped out gold teeth; any prisoner who still showed signs of life was finished off by an SS block leader. Later the Kapos threw the corpses into the oven of mobile crematoria, stationed just outside the barrack. Back inside the execution chamber, the perpetrators sprayed the floors and walls with a hose to wash away all the blood, tissue, and bone splinters. Then the next prisoner was led in. Some of them sensed that they would die. Many others were oblivious to their fate. Illness and exhaustion clouded their minds, and they were fooled by the SS theater. The SS also muffled the gunshot sounds. Not only was the killers’ booth soundproof, a gramophone played in the room where the other naked men were waiting. Cheerful tunes flowed through the barrack, the last sound a Soviet soldier would hear before he was shot from behind.144

The Sachsenhausen SS quickly became used to these assembly-line murders. Until mid-November 1941, when the operation was suspended because of a typhus epidemic, mass shootings took place several times a week. According to a former SS block leader, such actions lasted from early morning until late at night, with a prisoner being shot every two or three minutes, claiming around 300 to 350 lives a day.145 The Kapos worked nonstop, too, burning more than twenty-five bodies per hour at the crematoria.146 The smoke and stench soon spread outside the camp, alerting the local Oranienburg population. There was much talk behind closed doors about the murders and some bold children even approached passing SS men to ask when the next Russians would be burned.147

One evening in mid-September 1941, after the neck-shooting apparatus had operated for around two weeks, the Sachsenhausen SS proudly demonstrated it to two dozen SS grandees.148 The visitors were led through the execution barrack and watched as several Soviet POWs were shot and then “thrown with great brutality onto heaps,” as one of the SS officers later testified. Among the visitors were Inspector Glücks and his staff, who toasted their murderous invention with alcohol. Also present was Ernst Grawitz, the SS Reich physician, who had long been involved in Nazi mass murder. Most important, Theodor Eicke once more graced the Camp SS with his presence, just before he went back to the Eastern Front. Eicke addressed the Sachsenhausen SS men, encouraging them to keep up their grisly work. The grateful men sent off their hero with cheers and presents, including three cakes and a card addressed to “Papa Eicke.”149

Before Eicke returned to the front, he also took leave from Heinrich Himmler, meeting him on the evening of September 15, 1941, just a few hours after Reich physician Grawitz had seen Himmler. There can be little doubt that the Reichsführer SS was updated that day about the Sachsenhausen murders.150 After all, SS leaders knew that Himmler was actively looking for new methods of mass extermination. The daily massacres in the occupied Soviet Union, where Jews were lined up and shot into mass graves, had revealed that not all Nazi killers could stomach the pools of blood, the piercing screams of the wounded, and the cries of those next in line.151 This had prompted Himmler to look for more humane ways of mass murder—more humane for the killers, that is. Grawitz or Eicke, or both, must have reported back to Himmler about the new Sachsenhausen method, which promised some “advantages” over conventional mass shootings. After all, the killers did not have to look at their victims when they pulled the trigger, and most victims went to their deaths unaware, without protest or panic.

Experiments in Mass Murder

One of the SS officers invited to watch the demonstration of the Sachsenhausen neck-shooting mechanism in mid-September 1941 was the Mauthausen commandant Franz Ziereis. The IKL had invited him, together with other commandants, to learn “how to liquidate the Politruks and Russian Commissars,” he later testified. Ziereis was duly impressed. Upon his return to Mauthausen, he oversaw the construction of a similar apparatus in his own camp, ready for the first execution of Soviet officers on October 21, 1941.152 He was not the only commandant inspired by his Sachsenhausen colleagues. In Buchenwald, Karl Otto Koch also set up an execution chamber that closely resembled the Sachsenhausen prototype.153 Others went in a different direction, however. Inspector Glücks still valued local initiative and allowed his commandants to choose their own methods. As a result the KL turned into testing sites for mass execution in autumn and winter 1941.

In Dachau, the murder of Soviet “commissars” started in early September 1941, just like in Sachsenhausen. But instead of elaborate new techniques, the Dachau SS used the very method that Nazi killers elsewhere sought to abandon—open mass shootings. At first, the Dachau SS killed outside the bunker, as it had done on previous occasions, but as the number of victims increased, it moved the executions to its shooting range in Hebertshausen, about a mile and a half away. Here, Camp SS men forced the Soviet soldiers to strip naked and line up. Everything happened at great speed. A commando of SS men pounced on those in the first row, with five SS men grabbing one prisoner each, dragged them around a corner, and shackled them to posts. Then an SS squad opened fire, often shooting wildly at the helpless victims. The remaining POWs knew exactly what awaited them; they heard the salvos and saw the growing mountain of corpses. Some of the doomed men were paralyzed, some cried, some struggled, some screamed, some held up crosses, some pleaded for their lives. But the shootings only stopped when every prisoner had been executed. Afterwards, the killers would clean the mud and blood from their uniforms, using fresh towels and hot water brought over from the camp.154

Twenty-eight-year-old Ignat Prochorowitsch Babitsch was one of around 4,400 Soviet POWs murdered in Dachau between September 1941 and June 1942. A married man from a small village in northern Ukraine, Lieutenant Babitsch had served in an infantry division when he was captured in July 1941 near Berdychiv. He initially stayed in the occupied east, in Stalag 325 in Zamosc, before being moved to the Hammelburg camp in Germany. The army mug shot taken on arrival in mid-March 1942 shows a man with delicate features, a shaven head, and a quizzical expression. Just two weeks later a Gestapo commission selected him for extermination, presumably because Babitsch, a teacher, was regarded as a member of the intelligentsia. The RSHA approved his execution on April 10, 1942. A few days after that he was deported to Dachau and executed on the shooting range.155

The corpses of Soviet POWs murdered in Hebertshausen, like Ignat Babitsch, were brought to the Dachau camp crematorium. When one of the Kapos there asked SS camp compound leader Egon Zill where to store the ashes, he was told to just dump “the dirt of these Bolshevik swine.”156 It is not clear why Dachau Camp SS leaders continued with these massacres, when they could have employed the more clinical method practiced in Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald. Perhaps they felt too proud to follow the lead of another camp—Dachau, after all, had been the first model KL. Or maybe they wanted to show that they were tough enough to kill without deception, in a gruesome display of what passed for manliness within the Camp SS.

The Dachau SS was not alone in favoring mass shootings. In Flossenbürg, the SS also mowed down Soviet “commissars” on its shooting range from early September 1941. These executions were hastily abandoned a few months later, however, apparently after blood and body parts had been swept by a nearby river into Flossenbürg village, leading to complaints from locals. In Gross-Rosen, too, rumors among the local population put an end to mass shootings of Soviet POWs, which had initially been carried out on a field near the crematorium; the Camp SS had forced other prisoners to sing at the top of their voices, but this had not masked the sounds of the shootings.157

In both Flossenbürg and Gross-Rosen, the Camp SS replaced mass shootings with lethal injections. SS men subjected Soviet “commissars” to fake medical exams, measuring and weighing them, and then gave the deadly injection; the murderers tried various poisonous substances, including prussic acid, carbolic acid, and petrol.158 This method of killing proved more effective, though it was hardly new; as we have seen, the Camp SS had already begun to use deadly injections during its earlier murders of Muselmänner. As a result, the wider significance of the killings in Flossenbürg and Gross-Rosen was limited. The same cannot be said for the executions of Soviet POWs in another KL, farther to the east. Here, the experiments in autumn 1941 produced devastating results that would affect the very nature of Nazi mass extermination. The site of these trials was Auschwitz.

Inventing the Auschwitz Gas Chamber

One day in early September 1941—probably on September 5—a train from the Neuhammer POW camp in Lower Silesia arrived at Auschwitz. Hundreds of prisoners spilled out of the railcars. All of them were Soviet POWs identified by the Gestapo as “commissars.”159 By the time they marched through the Auschwitz compound, it was dark. The silence was punctured by barking guard dogs and the screams of the prisoners, beaten and whipped by cursing SS men. The noise stirred some inmates who had been asleep inside their barracks. Breaking strict SS instructions, they peered through the windows and saw the columns of POWs, illuminated by searchlights, disappear into block 11. Of all the places in Auschwitz, this was the most feared: it was the bunker, the SS center for torture and murder. Prisoners called it the “death block,” and Camp SS men associated it with death, too, which is why they had turned it into a makeshift gas chamber for Soviet POWs.160 The Auschwitz SS was about to carry out the first mass gassing inside a concentration camp.161

Inspired by the earlier murder of prisoners in the T-4 gas chambers (during Action 14f13), Auschwitz SS officials had decided to experiment with poison gas as well.162 They chose prussic acid—more commonly known by its trade name, Zyklon B—which had been used in the KL for some time to fumigate vermin-infested buildings. SS orderlies were trained in handling this delousing agent and knew how dangerous it was. It was also easier to deploy than the carbon monoxide used in T-4 killing centers, as there was no need to install pipes or gas cylinders—the murderers just had to drop Zyklon B pellets into a sealed chamber.163 A first lethal test had taken place around late August 1941, when the Auschwitz SS executed a small group of Soviet prisoners. The action was supervised by camp compound leader Karl Fritzsch, a Camp SS veteran who later bragged to colleagues that he was the inventor of the Auschwitz gas chambers.164 Commandant Rudolf Höss quickly agreed to a larger trial. In preparation, the SS cleared the bunker; doors were sealed and the cellar windows filled with cement.

It was into this cellar—a series of small cells and corridors—that the Auschwitz SS led the Soviet “commissars” that fateful night in early September 1941. As they were forced down the stairs, the POWs saw some 250 other prisoners sprawled across the floor, invalids from the infirmary who had been selected to die with them. Once the last Soviet prisoner had been crammed into the cellar, the SS threw Zyklon B crystals inside and locked the doors. On contact with the warm air and the captives’ bodies, highly toxic prussic acid was released and desperate screaming started, carrying all the way to the adjacent barracks. The gas quickly destroyed the victims’ mucous membranes and entered their bloodstream, asphyxiating them from within. Some dying men stuffed bits of clothing in their mouths to block the gas. But none survived.165

Commandant Rudolf Höss, who had watched outside with other SS men, took off his gas mask and congratulated himself; hundreds of prisoners had been killed without an SS man firing a single shot.166 Still, the practical-minded Höss saw room for improvements. For a start, block 11 was too far away from the Auschwitz crematorium: the corpses had to be dragged through the whole camp for disposal. Moreover, there was no built-in ventilation in block 11. The building had to be aired for a long time before the SS could force other inmates inside to recover the bodies. By then, the corpses—swollen, entangled, and stiff—had started to decay and proved hard to dislodge. One witness, the Polish prisoner Adam Zacharski, saw everything: “The scene was truly eerie, because one could see that these people had scratched and bitten each other in a fit of madness before they died, many had torn uniforms … Although I had already got used to some macabre scenes in the camp, I became sick when I saw these murdered people and I had to vomit violently.”167

To make mass murder more efficient, the Auschwitz SS soon relocated gassings to the morgue of the crematorium. It lay outside the camp compound, which meant that there would be fewer unwelcome witnesses among the regular prisoners. The morgue could hold hundreds of victims and already had an effective ventilation mechanism, making its conversion into a gas chamber easy; the doors were insulated and holes were hammered into the ceiling, so that Zyklon B could be dropped in from the flat roof above. Afterward, the corpses would be burned in the adjacent crematorium ovens. The Auschwitz SS had stumbled across the prototype of the death factory.168

Its first lethal test came in mid-September 1941, when the SS gassed some nine hundred Soviet POWs in the Auschwitz crematorium.169 As the prisoners arrived, SS men told them to undress and then forced them into the morgue, supposedly for delousing. SS men now slammed the doors shut and threw in the gas pellets. Commandant Rudolf Höss watched once more: “After the insertion, some screamed ‘gas,’ followed by mighty howling and pushing toward the two doors. But they withstood the pressure.” It took several days, he added, to burn all the bodies.170

Höss was convinced that the Auschwitz SS had made an important discovery. True, his men continued to use other methods to kill.171 But when it came to large-scale murder, Höss much preferred gassing over shooting, because it was less stressful for the SS. “Now I was relieved indeed,” he noted later, “that all of us would be spared these bloodbaths.” Höss also claimed that gassings were kinder on the victims, blanking out the terrible death struggle of all those crammed into the gas chamber.172

After the Auschwitz SS pioneered the use of poison gas in concentration camps, other KL followed, just as they had imitated the Sachsenhausen neck-shooting apparatus. Camp SS officers, already familiar with the principle of gassings (from the T-4 centers), were keen to test the latest innovations in mass murder. Once again, Franz Ziereis in Mauthausen was especially eager. From late autumn 1941, he oversaw the construction of a gas chamber, converting a cellar near the crematorium. The first large-scale gassing here took place in May 1942, killing 231 Soviet POWs with Zyklon B.173 Meanwhile, the Mauthausen Camp SS doctor requested a mobile gas van, built by the Criminal Technical Institute (KTI) of the Reich Criminal Police Office. The local SS used such a van,probably from spring 1942, to murder hundreds of Mauthausen prisoners, among them sick inmates and Soviet POWs.174

Mobile gas vans had originally been developed during the Nazi search for more effective ways of murdering Jews in the Soviet Union. Before the vans were deployed in the occupied east, however, the KTI had tested them inside Germany in autumn 1941. The location of these lethal tests was Sachsenhausen, and the victims were Soviet POWs, who were gassed instead of being shot. Camp SS men would force the naked prisoners into the van, customized to pump carbon monoxide from the engine into the hold. Then the van drove off. When it came to a stop outside the Sachsenhausen crematorium, all prisoners inside were dead, their bodies turned pink by the fumes.175 These experiments must have piqued the interest of the Sachsenhausen SS officers, though it was not until later, probably summer 1943, that they constructed their own stationary gas chamber; the first victims were once again Soviet POWs.176 Several other concentration camps added gas chambers in 1942–43, too, following in the footsteps of Auschwitz. The Neuengamme SS, for example, murdered some 450 Soviet POWs in autumn 1942 by dropping Zyklon B pellets into its converted bunker.177

Although many concentration camps used poison gas, it never became the main weapon of choice of the Camp SS: it was just one among many in its deadly arsenal. The main exception was Auschwitz, where the victims of the gas chambers were soon counted in the hundreds of thousands.178The separate path of Auschwitz was due to its transformation, in 1942, into a camp of the Holocaust. Commandant Höss himself had briefed Adolf Eichmann from the RSHA about his experiments with Zyklon B, and both men agreed to use it for the genocide of Jews. Less than a year after the first gassings in Auschwitz, many thousands of Jews from across Europe were exterminated there each month.179 However, although the Auschwitz gas chambers have long since become synonymous with the Holocaust, their origins lie elsewhere.180

SS Executioners

The mass extermination of Soviet POWs in 1941–42 turned hundreds of Camp SS men into professional executioners.181 Most were low-ranking members of the Commandant Staffs who had served in the KL since the prewar years and had long become used to terror and destruction.182Several Sachsenhausen killers, for example, had earned their spurs as block leaders in the notorious death squad; a man like Wilhelm Schubert had become a murderer long before he started shooting Soviet soldiers in the neck.183 And yet, the mass extermination of the POWs broke new ground, even for the most experienced SS men. Instead of occasional murders, they now participated in serial killings. Organized mass murder became part of the daily routine.

Many Camp SS men quickly adjusted to the new demands. Their self-image as political soldiers—the cornerstone of their collective identity—must have helped them to construe the killing of defenseless men as a valiant act of warfare against the “Jewish Bolshevik” enemy; it was their contribution to the war in the east, continuing the Nazi campaign of extermination behind the barbed wire of the camps. Such thinking was encouraged by widespread talk about Soviet atrocities. After the start of Operation Barbarossa, Nazi propaganda swamped the Third Reich with graphic reports about beastly Bolshevik crimes. Camp SS officers, too, told their men that Soviet “commissars” were savage insurgents and partisans, guilty of heinous crimes against German soldiers, and praised the SS executioners for performing an important duty for the fatherland.184 The feeling that the Nazi leadership had entrusted them with such a vital mission must have filled many Camp SS killers with pride and a sense of purpose.185

In addition to these ideological factors, the executions provided SS perpetrators with their biggest stage yet to impress comrades in the camps’ theater of cruelty. Participation in the mass killings, which some SS men belittled as a “shooting match,” was seen as a test of character, and those who passed it without flinching received respect from their peers and praise from their superiors. Just as German air force pilots bragged to other soldiers about the number of enemy planes they had downed, Camp SS killers would boast about the number of commissars they had finished off.186Some SS men also demonstrated their cold-bloodedness by mocking the dead and violating their bodies. What passed for SS humor knew no bounds of decency. On the Dachau shooting range, an SS man once grabbed a long wooden stick and aimed a swing at the genitals of a murdered Soviet prisoner, shouting to his colleagues: “Look here, he is still standing!”187

Other Camp SS men, however, felt far less comfortable about all the bloodshed. Some were scared of infection, since Soviet “commissars” were widely suspected as carriers of dangerous diseases. SS killers in the neck-shooting barracks wore protective clothing and cellophane masks, but despite these precautions, several of them contracted typhus, brought inside from the abominable POW camps; one block leader died as a result.188 A number of SS men harbored doubts about the righteousness of the whole operation. A Sachsenhausen official, who was not directly involved in the killings, warned that the Red Army would retaliate by executing German soldiers (a fear shared by some Wehrmacht officers). The mass murder in the Nazi camps was wrong, he told the camp elder Harry Naujoks in autumn 1941, and it meant that the Third Reich had already lost the war, at least morally. Meanwhile, over at the shooting ranges and the execution barracks, several killers could not stand the carnage and fainted or broke down (just like some task force men in the occupied east). Others were very reluctant participants and tried to get out of the massacres; after their superiors announced the roster of designated killers for the next execution, they reported late for duty, or quietly stole away when the execution commando assembled.189

But it was hard to do the right thing. The concentration camp was an inverted world, where those who showed courage—by challenging the murderous status quo—were branded as cowards. Several unwilling executioners cracked under pressure from gung-ho comrades, with group conformity continuing to fuse Camp SS men into a large criminal gang. Any hesitation was seized upon with alacrity by the others. In Sachsenhausen, Wilhelm Schubert openly derided another SS block leader as a “wet blanket” for killing fewer POWs. SS men who tried to duck out altogether faced even more mockery about their manliness, and often caved. In the end, their fear of shame was stronger than their fear of killing. Nobody wanted to be seen as a “limp dick,” one Sachsenhausen killer later said (using a revealing phrase).190 If social pressure was not enough, SS superiors brought reluctant killers into line.191 Only a handful of SS men continued to refuse. A few of them were probably excused, though punishment was another realistic prospect.192Oberscharführer Karl Minderlein, a member of the Dachau SS since 1933, stubbornly rejected calls to participate in the executions. Following a heated confrontation between Minderlein and the commandant, an SS court sentenced the disobedient SS man to imprisonment; he spent several months in solitary confinement in Dachau, before being transferred in summer 1942 to a penal company on the Eastern Front.193

Senior Camp SS officials were well aware that numerous killers struggled with the murderous tasks, reflecting general concerns by SS leader Heinrich Himmler that his men might “suffer damage” when executing prisoners in concentration camps.194 In the case of the Soviet “commissars,” SS leaders could have limited the circle of perpetrators by assigning a few expert executioners (as they would later do at the Auschwitz gas chambers). Instead, they often roped in as many men from the Commandant Staff as possible. “Almost all block leaders of the camp participated,” a Sachsenhausen SS man admitted after the war, and their duties in the neck-shooting barrack rotated, as another killer testified: “Each block leader did, at different times, shoot through the gap, play the doctor, clean away the blood, and so on.”195 In this way, the burden of the killings was widely shared, leaving many Camp SS men with blood on their hands. Their shared complicity bound the killers ever closer together and made it harder to step outside the group.

To help the killers forget their grisly experiences, Camp SS leaders held regular comradeship evenings. After a long day of mass shootings in Sachsenhausen, block leaders would say “Come on, let’s grab some food,” and head for the SS canteen, where delicacies like pork schnitzel with fried potatoes were waiting.196 Free schnapps and beer was even more popular.197 Alcohol had fueled outrages in the camps since the early days. There was always plenty to drink, especially for younger and unmarried rank-and-file men, who spent much of their spare time in the canteen. On weekdays, alcohol was served at lunchtime and again in the evenings until late, and on Sundays the tap often ran all day.198 Not only was alcohol an enabler of violence, it helped to deaden scruples after the deed. Just as Nazi murderers on the Eastern Front dulled their conscience with drink, so, too, did Camp SS men who murdered Soviet POWs.199 But some killers continued to struggle with their conscience, however hard they tried to silence it. The Sachsenhausen block leader Max Hohmann, who was known as a reluctant killer, once drunkenly asked a political prisoner whether he looked like a murderer. When the prisoner answered in the negative, Hohmann replied: “But I am one!” and unburdened himself about the shootings.200

To lift the morale of their executioners, Camp SS leaders promised riches and glory. To show the appreciation of the fatherland, IKL bosses distributed a one-off payment in November 1941; the SS killers in Gross-Rosen, for instance, shared the tidy sum of six hundred Reichsmark between them. In the same month, the IKL asked commandants for the names of all “SS members involved in the executions,” so that they could be awarded military decorations. In the eyes of Heinrich Himmler, shooting Soviet POWs in theneck, gassing them, or giving them lethal injections merited an award for bravery, the Kriegsverdienstkreuz 2nd Class with Swords—an honor previously reserved in the Camp SS for commandants.201

The biggest reward for the executioners was a holiday abroad, an unheard-of luxury for most SS men. Their destination was Italy. In spring 1942, more than two dozen Sachsenhausen killers set off for a trip to the south; a few months later, a party from Dachau went the same way, heading for the Isle of Capri. The killers celebrated in SS style; some Sachsenhausen guards trashed their hotel rooms in a drunken stupor, causing considerable damage. In the small town of Sorrento, the men found time to pose for a German magazine, which later printed one of the photos on its title page: an Italian girl dances the tarantella, while several Sachsenhausen block leaders—in full regalia, with hats, black leather gloves, and ceremonial sabers—relax in the background, slumped into wicker chairs. Even a holiday in the sun could not clear the minds of all killers, however. On his return, at least one of the Sachsenhausen shooters confessed to a colleague that he was still plagued by nightmares about the murdered POWs.202 In the end, mass murder proved harder than some SS men had imagined. Coming face-to-face with their helpless, naked victims, they had struggled to live up to the ideal of the merciless political soldier.203

Even so, the murderous operation largely proceeded as planned. Occasional SS scruples did not create any real obstacles, and neither did the growing awareness of the killings by regular prisoners. Within weeks, well-informed inmates knew what was going on. Kapos in camp laundries received truckloads of Soviet army shirts, coats, and uniforms, and Kapos in the crematoria, who helped to burn the bodies, found Soviet medals and coins among the ashes.204 Soon the murders were an open secret inside the KL. “We are all shattered by these mass murders, which have already claimed more than a thousand [Red Army soldiers],” political prisoners in Sachsenhausen wrote in a secret note on September 19, 1941. “We are currently unable to help them.”205 Once more, prisoners were confronted with their helplessness. And they also feared for their own lives. Now that the SS had moved to mass murder inside the camps, who would be next? Rudolf Wunderlich, a Communist Kapo in Sachsenhausen, recalled not long after that all prisoners were “gripped by impotent fury, also fear and depression.”206 The Camp SS leaders, meanwhile, saw their first foray into mass extermination as a success and soon turned to even more expansive programs of abuse and mass murder.


There was a time, in the early years after the Second World War, when historians showed little real interest in Hitler’s worldview. Writing him off as a madman or an opportunist, they overlooked his core convictions. Of course, Hitler’s rambling writings and speeches, and his interminable monologues over lunch and dinner, never added up to a systematic body of thought, and there continues to be some debate about the extent to which his views dictated the course of the Third Reich. Nonetheless, Hitler clearly held strong political beliefs that guided him and shaped the new Germany he wanted to build.207

At the very center of Hitler’s worldview—together with his fanatical hatred of Jews and Bolsheviks—stood the belief that Germany could not survive without the conquest of living space. Hitler had already made up his mind about this in the mid-1920s, when he still seemed destined for political obscurity. Germany needed to expand, he believed, and its future lay in the east, above all in the Soviet Union, with its vast stretches of land and rich agricultural resources. Hitler remained fixated on this goal for the rest of his life. Even as he was cowering in a maze of bunkers under the garden of the bombed Reich Chancellery, not long before his suicide in April 1945, he talked feverishly about the German mission to secure living space in the east.208

Back in summer 1941, right after the start of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s dream appeared to be within his grasp. Germany was on course for a crushing victory over the Soviet Union, or so it seemed; within a month of the invasion, the Wehrmacht had crossed the Dnieper, taken Smolensk, and closed in on Kiev. On July 16, 1941, in a top-level conference, Hitler laid out his vision. All the European areas of the Soviet Union would remain in German hands, Hitler announced: “We have to turn the newly gained eastern territories into a Garden of Eden.”209 Over the coming weeks and months, Hitler fantasized again and again about the glorious future awaiting Germany in the east. His mind kept wandering over his new dominions, daydreaming about all the towns and cities he would build. In three hundred years, Hitler mused, the bare and empty expanses would be flowering landscapes. Lording over the remaining Slavic population, the German rulers would live in opulent settlements, connected by a huge network of roads. “If only I could give the German people an idea,” Hitler sighed in private in early September 1941, “of what this space means for the future.”210

Settlements in the East

One man who needed no convincing was Heinrich Himmler, who was infatuated with the idea of living space. Soon after the German victory over Poland in autumn 1939, he had traveled across the occupied territory with his friend Hanns Johst, who afterward wrote how the Reichsführer SS, who had studied agriculture as a young man, got out of his car, gazed across the fields, and picked up some earth: “Thus we stood like ancient farmers and we smiled at each other with twinkling eyes. All of this was now German soil!”211 Himmler made it his mission to colonize this soil, after Hitler charged him in autumn 1939 with “shaping the new German settlement areas” through major population transfers, replacing dangerous “racial aliens” with ethnic Germans.212 Himmler took his cue from Hitler. Backed by a large new organization, he oversaw the brutal deportation of hundreds of thousands of Poles and Polish Jews eastward, as well as the influx of ethnic Germans into the western parts of Nazi-occupied Poland.213

After the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Himmler lost no time in staking his claim on these possessions, too. As the head of the Nazi terror apparatus, Himmler was in charge of policing the newly conquered areas.214 And as the Reich Commissioner for the Strengthening of the German People, he tried to transform this territory along the lines of Nazi racial thinking. On June 24, 1941, just two days after the German invasion, Himmler charged his chief planner, Professor Konrad Meyer, with drawing up a blueprintfor “new settlement planning in the East.”215 Himmler’s men set to work on the so-called General Plan East, which gained, over the coming weeks and months, truly monstrous proportions. It aimed to reconstruct the entire face of eastern Europe. The SS planners did not advocate cosmetic changes but butchery, with whole cities razed, vast regions Germanized, and tens of millions of civilians deported, enslaved, and killed.216

These plans for Germany’s colonial future required a gigantic construction effort, an assignment tailor-made for the expanding SS economy under Oswald Pohl. By early 1942, Himmler had put Pohl in charge of all SS peacetime building projects in the east, a huge task that included the construction of dozens of new bases across the former Soviet Union.217 Back in mid-December 1941, Pohl had already presented Himmler with a comprehensive postwar building program for Germany and much of Nazi-controlled Europe. The estimated cost was a staggering thirteen billion Reichsmark, with almost half of it earmarked for SS and police structures on former Soviet territory. But in January 1942 Himmler rejected these plans, not because they were too outlandish, but because they were too cautious. One had to think even bigger, Himmler lectured Pohl, to create the “mammoth settlements” with which “we will make the east German.” At Himmler’s insistence, the SS building program went through ever more gargantuan drafts over the coming months.218

Much of the projected building work was supposed to be carried out by concentration camp prisoners. This made economic sense, as far as the SS leaders were concerned. The war had severely strained Germany’s financial resources, Himmler reminded Pohl, and the German state would have to spend prudently after the victorious war. At the same time, the SS plans could not wait. Himmler’s solution was simple: costs would be kept down by upping production in SS quarries and brick factories.219 This vision was grounded in the colonial euphoria and genocidal utopianism that gripped the SS, from the highest echelons down to foot soldiers like the Mauthausen Hauptscharführer who ordered prisoners to draw detailed plans for a castle in Crimea.220 Like all true zealots, the SS believers wanted to turn their dreams into reality as fast as possible. Even though their most ambitious plans were scheduled for after the war, they felt that construction should start straightaway; after all, they expected a swift victory. And because prisoners were critical to their plans, they set out to transform the KL system.

There was no mistaking the stronger emphasis of Camp SS leaders on forced labor. To begin with, they launched one of their periodic restructures of KL labor. In late September 1941, the ineffectual bureau for prisoner labor, set up the previous year in Pohl’s SS Main Office for Budgets and Building, was incorporated directly into the IKL, together with its local representatives in camps, the so-called labor action leaders (Arbeitseinsatzführer). Although the immediate impact was negligible, the move demonstrated the growing preoccupation of the Camp SS with “major visionary, economic and war-essential tasks,” as Inspector Richard Glücks put it.221

The main focus of SS leaders was not on organizational matters, but on the prisoners themselves. Himmler zeroed in on their training. Earlier SS initiatives to teach practical skills had not amounted to much. Now Himmler demanded the creation of an army of skilled inmates. In early December 1941, he ordered Pohl to have at least fifteen thousand concentration camp prisoners trained as stonemasons and bricklayers. Himmler added that this program should be completed by the end of the war, so that the prisoners were ready for deployment in “large-scale construction which would then be undertaken,” such as Hitler’s monumental city building projects, which had been the main stimulus of the SS economy since the late 1930s.222 But Himmler’s gaze had already shifted from rebuilding Germany to settling the conquered east, which would require even more inmate labor. And so prisoner training became an idée fixe for Himmler and his managers. One senior IKL official stressed in late 1941 that “every healthy inmate” had to become“a skilled worker.”223 Like many of Himmler’s favorite projects, this remained a pipe dream. Proper training would have required decent treatment, adequate food, and reasonable conditions—the exact opposite of what the KL stood for. If Himmler’s plans had been realized, the camps would no longer have been the camps, and no SS manager was willing to contemplate this. In any case, prisoner training alone would never be enough to create the workforce required for the SS construction program. What the SS leaders really needed were masses of new slave laborers.

Soviets as Slaves

With his planners busily redrawing the map of Europe, turning entire countries upside down, Heinrich Himmler did not hold back when it came to forced labor, either. He envisaged huge concentration camps filled with slaves to realize his monumental vision; the new settlements in the east would be erected on soil soaked with the sweat and blood of KL inmates. Himmler’s main push came in September 1941, when his eyes fell on Soviet POWs.224 At the time, there seemed to be an infinite supply of Soviet prisoners. Vast numbers had fallen into German hands, with many more on their way (by mid-October 1941, the Wehrmacht had captured more than three million men), and Himmler identified them as an untapped resource. Nazi leaders had previously banned their deployment for the German war economy, so they had often remained idle in the hands of the Wehrmacht. When this resolve to shut out Soviet POWs was weakening in late summer 1941, Himmler saw his chance: Why not exploit some as forced laborers in concentration camps?225

Himmler moved fast for Soviet POWs, supported by Hitler.226 On September 15, 1941, he evidently discussed his plans with his closest confidant, Reinhard Heydrich, and with Oswald Pohl; he probably also raised them with the godfather of the KL, Theodor Eicke, that same day. The following morning, he telephoned Pohl once more; we do not know the details of their conversation, but Himmler’s notes reveal the magnitude of his plans: “100,000 Russians take over into concentration camps.”227 Enormous as these figures were, Himmler soon doubled them. On the drawing boards of the SS, radical plans were quickly torn up and replaced by even more radical ones. By September 22, 1941, when Himmler met with Camp Inspector Glücks (who had been briefed some days earlier), he wanted two hundred thousand POWs for the KL.228 Discussions were already under way with the Army High Command, and it did not take long to reach a deal: in late September the army agreed to leave up to one hundred thousand Soviet POWs to Himmler.229 It seemed as if the Reichsführer SS had reached his initial goal with speed and ease.

Even before the negotiations with the army were concluded, the Camp SS prepared for the influx of Soviet soldiers. Some of these prisoners, Himmler decided, would be diverted to existing camps. On September 15, 1941, the same day he talked to Heydrich, Pohl, and Eicke, the IKL sent an urgent telex to commandants, asking them how many POWs they could accommodate. The plan was to put them in new barracks—as basic as possible—but to speed things up the local Camp SS also cleared some old barracks of other inmates. By October 1941, special areas, separated from the rest of the compounds and identified by signs such as “Prisoner of War Labor Camp,” had been hastily completed in Neuengamme, Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, Gross-Rosen, Sachsenhausen, and Dachau, as well as in Mauthausen, which was earmarked as the largest such site within the prewar German borders.230

The bulk of Soviet POWs, however, were assigned elsewhere, after SS planners decided to build two massive new concentration camps on occupied Polish soil. The first was established in Lublin, some one hundred miles southeast of Warsaw, and became known as Majdanek (from the Majdan Tatarski district to the north). Majdanek was the first KL in the General Government. In the early phase of the occupation of Poland, Nazi leaders had decided against such a camp. As governor Hans Frank told senior German police officials in May 1940, it would be redundant: “Any suspects on our patch should be liquidated straightaway.” But during a visit on July 20, 1941, Himmler selected Lublin as the site of a big new concentration camp, to help turn the region into a major outpost for German settlements. His order was not immediately implemented, perhaps because it was not yet clear where all the prisoners would come from. Only two months later, during Himmler’s quest for Soviet POWs, did the SS push ahead with the plan. On September 22, 1941, Dr. Hans Kammler, recently appointed as the head of the construction office in Pohl’s SS Main Office for Budgets and Building, ordered the erection of the camp on the edge of Lublin, with a projected capacity of fifty thousand prisoners; construction began on October 7, 1941. But the blueprint for Majdanek was outdated as soon as it had been drawn up. As Himmler’s appetite for Soviet POWs grew, so did the projected prisoner figures for Majdanek. By early November 1941, Dr. Kammler already expected some 125,000 POWs, rising to 150,000 by early December.231

The second major new camp in occupied Poland was set up on land already controlled by the Camp SS. On September 26, 1941, just days after the construction order for Majdanek had gone out, Dr. Kammler ordered the building of a huge new camp near the town of Auschwitz. During a local inspection on October 2, 1941, Kammler chose the location of the new POW camp, less than two miles west of the main Auschwitz camp, to which it was subordinated. The spot was slightly moved a few days later, on the insistence of Commandant Höss: the new camp would grow on the site of a village called Birkenau (Brzezinka), inside the large SS interest zone that had been cleared of all inhabitants several months earlier. Construction began on October 15, 1941, and just like in Majdanek, the SS planners set their sights high. In late September 1941, the SS already expected fifty thousand prisoners, a figure revised within weeks to a hundred thousand.232 There were no signs yet that Birkenau would one day stand at the center of the Holocaust.233 The new subcamp was not built to murder the Jews of Europe, but to exploit vast numbers of Soviet POWs in the quest for German living space. In part, the SS hoped to turn the city of Auschwitz into a model settlement. More important, no doubt, were the plans for settlements elsewhere. As the most easterly established KL, Auschwitz would be a good base for the expansion of the SS, following in the footsteps of the revered Teutonic Knights.234

Similar motives stood behind the creation, later in 1941, of a third new camp in occupied eastern Europe, near a small village called Stutthof (Sztutowo), near Danzig. In contrast to Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau, a camp already existed here. The Stutthof camp, surrounded by thick forests, swamps, and canals, had initially been set up by a local SS unit on September 2, 1939, just after the German attack on Poland, to terrorize the local population. In early 1940, SS leaders briefly considered turning the site into a concentration camp. But after some discussion, Himmler decided against it. In autumn 1941, he changed his mind. During a visit on Sunday, November 23, 1941, he concluded that it should become a KL proper. His order was implemented in early 1942.235 The new camp was designated as a regional provider of forced labor for German settlements in Danzig and West Prussia. Because the plans were more modest than for Majdanek and Birkenau, Himmler was thinking of allocating fewer Soviet POWs than to the other two new camps; in late 1941, he proposed sending some twenty thousand men. Plans for a new compound on the site were duly drawn up in Berlin and sent to Stutthof in early March 1942, at a time when the building work in Birkenau and Majdanek was already under way.236

It is worth pausing to reflect on the magnitude of Himmler’s plans for Soviet POWs. What he was proposing in autumn 1941 was the greatest shake-up of the KL system since the mid-1930s. He envisaged a colossal increase in prisoner numbers. At a time when the entire camp system held fewer than eighty thousand prisoners, Himmler wanted to add some two hundred thousand or more. The great majority would work in gigantic new camp complexes, towering over the existing KL. The main camp in Auschwitz (with some ten thousand prisoners, currently one of the largest camps) would be dwarfed by the attached new camp in nearby Birkenau.237 And with so many Soviet POWs earmarked for new camps in occupied Poland, the balance of the entire concentration camp system would tip sharply eastward. This focus on the east pointed to the new function of concentration camps: the colonization of German living space. Making prisoners perform productive labor was nothing new. Neither was their use in construction projects. But the plans in autumn 1941 were of a different order. Himmler envisaged an enormous program of forced labor, harnessing vast numbers of prisoners for a vital Nazi building program overseen by the SS. The KL would grow, the SS economy would grow, and Germany would grow. Once again, Himmler saw himself as acting in the best interests of both the SS and the nation.

KL Graveyards

On October 7, 1941, a freight train pulled up at a ramp near the Auschwitz main camp and slowly came to a halt. Inside were 2,014 men, the first Soviet POWs dispatched to the camp for forced labor. The doors were flung open and the prisoners, dazed and dirty, staggered out of the stifling carriages into the bright light, gasping for air. Among them was the twenty-eight-year-old infantry lieutenant Nikolaj Wassiljew from Moscow. “We did not know where we had arrived,” he said later, “and what kind of camp this was.” The SS guards soon showed them: screams and blows rained down on Wassiljew and the others. Some feared that they would be shot straightaway. Instead, the SS forced them to strip and jump into a vat filled with disinfectant. Wassiljew recalled that those “who did not want to jump were kicked and pushed in with sticks.” Then the bone-thin POWs had to crouch naked on the floor.238

The newcomers had barely caught their breath when the Auschwitz SS ordered them to march to the camp. It was an icy autumn day, with frost on the roofs and patches of snow on the ground, and the Soviet soldiers were shivering with cold as they arrivedinside the compound, where more SS men lay in wait. Some pointed their cameras at the POWs and took trophy photographs. Others battered the prisoners and then forced them to line up. There were further disinfections, which spread more terror, and also more disease since they were performed ineptly. “Then we were chased into the barrack[s],” remembered Nikolaj Wassiljew. The new POW section in the Auschwitz main camp consisted of nine completely bare blocks. “We remained without clothes for several days,” Wassiljew added, “we were always naked.” For warmth, the prisoners would huddle together in groups. The weakest leaned against the walls or lay on the concrete floors.239

More and more transports arrived over the coming days, and the small POW enclosure was soon desperately overcrowded; between October 7 and 25, 1941, almost ten thousand Soviet soldiers were pressed inside, doubling the Auschwitz prisoner population in just eighteen days.240 All this was the result of Himmler’s deal with the army. Following the general agreement in late September, the High Command of the Wehrmacht had started to make good on its promise to hand over Soviet POWs. On October 2, 1941, it ordered the transfer of twenty-five thousand prisoners for labor inside the Third Reich; the ensuing transports to the KL started within days—mostly heading for Auschwitz—and were completed by the end of the month. An additional two thousand Soviet POWs were dispatched to Majdanek in the General Government.241

The incoming Soviet POWs faced infernal conditions, not just in Auschwitz. In Sachsenhausen, they were also crammed inside empty barracks. There were “no beds, no cots, no chairs or tables, no blankets,” recalled Benjamin Lebedev, who arrived with 1,800 other Soviet soldiers on October 18, 1941. “We slept on the ground, our wooden shoes as a cushion.”242 In Gross-Rosen, the first arrivals were not even allowed inside their barracks and had to spend several nights outside; between two hundred and three hundred men are said to have lost their lives during the first night alone.243 In Majdanek, too, some Soviet POWs had to sleep out in the open, as there were not yet enough barracks; desperate for shelter, the prisoners dug holes in the hard ground.244

In line with Himmler’s plans, the Camp SS soon pressed some of the POWs into forced labor. In Auschwitz, Soviet prisoners had to prepare the new Birkenau compound from autumn 1941 onward. They cleared woods, dug trenches, and dismantled old farmhouses to gather bricks for the new camp buildings. Toiling with their bare hands in icy temperatures, many prisoners collapsed and died. “They froze en masse,” a Polish resistance fighter wrote in a secret note; other POWs were shot or beaten to death during work. As the survivors dragged themselves back each evening from the Birkenau building site to their quarters in the main camp, they were accompanied by a cart that carried the corpses of their comrades.245

The majority of Soviet POWs were too weak to work at all. In Flossenbürg, it took several months before the Camp SS deployed any of the 1,700 POWs who had arrived in mid-October 1941.246 In Gross-Rosen, the SS sent only 150 of the 2,500 Soviet men into the camp’s quarry, and even they produced almost nothing, as the local DESt office complained in mid-December 1941: “These Russians are in such bad physical shape that one can barely demand any labor from them. They are worse than the worst prisoners so far.”247 Having already suffered at the noxious hands of the German army, the Soviet soldiers were in a desperate state even before they entered the concentration camps. “I was already ill when I arrived,” recalled Nikolaj Wassiljew. “I had a kidney infection, pneumonia, and dysentery.” After a week in Auschwitz, he was moved to an infirmary for Soviet POWs, which resembled a morgue more than a hospital. There was almost no hope of treatment, with prisoner orderlies reduced to using toilet paper as bandages.248

Most Soviet POWs joined the ranks of the dying—such were the conditions in most concentration camps. Many starved to death, since the Camp SS had reduced their rations well below those of other prisoners, until there was almost no food left at all; probably for the first time in the history of the KL, some inmates became so desperate they resorted to cannibalism. In Auschwitz, Commandant Rudolf Höss viewed the death struggle of Soviet soldiers like an anthropologist, as if it had nothing to do with him. “They were no longer human beings,” he wrote in 1946. “They had become animals, only on the hunt for food.” Some Camp SS men amused themselves by throwing bread into the POW enclosures, watching the frantic prisoners fight for every scrap.249 Starvation soon bred more illness.250 And epidemics were rampant, too; by late November 1941, half of all Soviet soldiers in Majdanek were suffering from typhus and its aftereffects.251

The Camp SS did not hesitate to kill ill, infectious, and weak Soviet soldiers, perhaps aware that Himmler approved such murders as a radical solution to epidemics and supply shortages.252 In Auschwitz, Nikolaj Wassiljew, who worked in the infirmary after his health had improved, witnessed a large SS selection among POWs in early 1942. Stripped naked, they had to run past SS men, sitting behind a table, who singled out the weakest ones. The victims were led, one by one, into the operating room and murdered by lethal injection.253 In other camps, too, SS men routinely murdered sick POWs (just as they started to murder other so-called invalids, too). In Majdanek and Mauthausen, for example, SS men responded to typhus outbreaks by killing large numbers of Soviet soldiers in autumn and winter 1941; murder was seen as the surest method of disease control.254

Camp SS men also executed Soviet POWs on political grounds, even though they had been sent for work. Within weeks of their arrival in October 1941, the RSHA, still obsessed with the danger of commissars, had dispatched Gestapo commissions to concentration camps to root out supposed enemies hiding among the new arrivals. In Auschwitz, Gestapo officials screened all Soviet slave laborers, and selected one thousand “fanatical communists” and “politically unacceptable [elements]” for execution; the Camp SS shot and gassed the victims from late 1941 onward.255

The line between Soviet POWs who came to concentration camps for forced labor and those who came for execution became ever more blurred. In November 1941, Heinrich Himmler even agreed to temporarily exempt “commissars” from execution if they were fit for work. From now on, the local Camp SS could pick out physically strong men from execution transports for labor in quarries; soon these prisoners would be dead, too, but not before the SS had harnessed their last strength.256 This was an early appearance of the concept of “annihilation through labor,” which SS leaders were also considering as a weapon against Jews, and which would claim countless lives in the KL over the coming years.257

But this was still in the future. Back in autumn and winter 1941, the Camp SS gained almost nothing from the suffering of Soviet soldiers who arrived as slave laborers. The scale of death was stunning. In Majdanek, hardly any of the two thousand Soviet POWs were still alive in mid-January 1942.258 In Auschwitz, too, the young soldiers “dropped like flies,” as Commandant Rudolf Höss noted. Around eighty percent—some 7,900 men or more—were dead by early January 1942, less than three months after the first transport had reached the camp; the worst day came on November 4, 1941, when 352 Soviet POWs died in Auschwitz.259 The mass death of Soviet soldiers in late 1941 was not confined to the KL in the occupied east. In Sachsenhausen, almost thirty percent of Soviet POWs are said to have perished within their first month inside (not counting “commissars” executed in the neck-shooting barrack).260 And in Gross-Rosen, just 89 out of 2,500 Soviet POWs were still alive on January 25, 1942.261

At the time, the local Camp SS saw these deaths, which far exceeded all previous Camp SS records, largely as a logistical problem. This was true above all in Auschwitz, which claimed the lives of more Soviet slave laborers than any other KL. The Auschwitz SS initially struggled to identify all the dead, as army tags were lost in the chaos of the POW enclosure and numbers written on bodies quickly rubbed off. To prevent cases of mistaken identity, the SS took a drastic step. From November 1941 onward, Soviet slave workers had their prisoner number tattooed onto their skin. A special metal stamp was punched into the prisoner’s chest, with ink wiped into the wound; the men were so weak they were propped against a wall, lest they collapse under the blow of the stamp. The notorious Auschwitz tattoo was born and later extended to most inmates in the camp (no other KL used tattoos, though some had used ink stamps in the past).262

The Auschwitz SS also searched for new ways to dispose of the dead. The existing crematorium in the main camp could not burn all the dead POWs, and as corpses were piling up all over the enclosure, a sickening smell of decomposing bodies began to spread through the camp and beyond. On November 11, 1941, the recently appointed head of the Auschwitz SS building office, Karl Bischoff, sent a cable to the camp’s furnace supplier in Germany: “Third incinerator urgently needed.” Because it would take months before the new oven was installed, the Camp SS in the meantime decided to dump the bodies in ditches in Birkenau, hastily dug by other POWs. Birkenau became a vast graveyard for Soviet soldiers.263

Himmler Thwarted

In autumn and winter 1941, a gulf opened up between Himmler’s megalomaniac plans for the mass deployment of Soviet POWs, which envisaged their exploitation for gigantic German settlements, and the reality inside his concentration camps, which was all about death. Even a few Camp SS men were alert to the apparent contradictions of SS policy. Their doubts were summed up by a Sachsenhausen official, who asked himself out loud: “So have these people come here to die or to work?”264 As an advocate of “annihilation through labor,” Himmler’s answer would have been “both.” But in the case of the Soviet POWs who arrived for slave labor in October 1941, the SS succeeded only in part; the soldiers were annihilated all right, but long before most of them could be exploited. The RSHA warned the Camp SS not to confuse POWs arriving “for labor deployment” with those destined “for execution.”265 Not all local SS men could see the difference; after all, Nazi propaganda had long painted all Soviet soldiers as dangerous subhumans.266

And so the death of Soviet POWs continued. When the Sachsenhausen block leader Martin Knittler, a seasoned killer from the camp’s neck-shooting barrack, was informed one day in November 1941 that nine Soviet slave laborers had perished, he replied: “What? Only nine deaths today? We’ll see to that.” Knittler then ordered the remaining Soviet soldiers, who had just showered, to stand for hours outside their barrack in the freezing cold. The next day, thirty-seven of them were dead.267 SS men like Knittler could rationalize their murders as economically beneficial. Following Nazi social-Darwinist thinking, the lethal conditions they helped to create led to a natural selection; those Soviet soldiers who survived would be the fittest and hardest workers.268

Camp SS leaders in Oranienburg were well aware of the slaughter of Soviet slave laborers. But Richard Glücks and his men were neither surprised nor alarmed.269 In fact, they fostered the lethal atmosphere inside the KL. When it came to the construction of new barracks, Arthur Liebehenschel had been implacable from the start. The Soviet POWs, he announced in mid-September 1941, had to be housed “in the most primitive manner.”270 What this meant becomes clear when studying the SS plans for the new camp at Birkenau, drawn up in mid-October 1941. Disease and death were built into the plans, which envisaged 125,000 POWs packed into 174 barracks; the surface space allocated to each prisoner was, appropriately enough, the same size as a coffin. Seven thousand prisoners were supposed to share a latrine hut and 7,800 prisoners a wash hut. These provisions were worse, far worse, than the standard design for concentration camps. But in the eyes of SS planners—who subscribed to Himmler’s views of Soviets as resilient “human animals”—they were just right.271

At first glance, the treatment of Soviet POWs in late 1941 seems baffling: Why were so many men, who had been earmarked for KL slave labor, pushed to their graves? From the perspective of the SS, however, these murders were less contentious. The deaths would have raised concerns only if the lives of Soviet slave laborers had held any real value. They did not. Underlying the murder and neglect by the Camp SS was the conviction that the twenty-seven thousand soldiers who had arrived in October 1941 were just the vanguard; far more Soviet POWs would follow and take the place of the dead. Caught up in the hubris of Nazi domination, the Camp SS counted on an infinite surge of Soviet prisoners.272

But the reinforcements did not come. Not long after the SS had staked a claim on captured Soviet soldiers, Hitler made a decisive intervention. On October 31, 1941, faced with growing labor shortages, he ordered the mass deployment of Soviet POWs for the general German war effort; soon, SS claims were sidelined by the more urgent demands from state and private industry. What is more, there were far fewer captives than expected. Never again did the Wehrmacht take as many prisoners as it did in the early months of Operation Barbarossa. Afterward, the blitzkrieg predicted by Hitler’s cocksure generals turned into an unceasing war of attrition. The German advance stalled outside Moscow, followed by the first major counteroffensive in December 1941. By then, most of the captured Soviet soldiers were already dead or dying, victims of the fatal conditions in Wehrmacht compounds and the merciless hunt for “commissars.”273 Himmler’s huge wave of Soviet POWs never hit the concentration camps.

As a result, his grandiose plans for the expansion of the KL system—with the giant new camps in Birkenau and Majdanek as the main base for Soviet soldiers—failed to materialize, at least in the way he had intended. On December 19, 1941, SS buildings supremo Hans Kammler sent Himmler a sobering update about progress in Birkenau and Majdanek. Hard as he tried to apply a positive gloss, Kammler conceded that the construction of both camps—now projected at one hundred and fifty thousand prisoners each—was well behind schedule; so far, only twenty-six barracks had been built in Majdanek, and fourteen in Birkenau. The main problem, apart from subzero temperatures and shortages of building material, was the sheer lack of manpower. As conceived in autumn 1941, the building project relied on the influx of huge numbers of Soviet soldiers. But the POWs who had arrived so far were of no use to the SS. The plans to make the POWs build their own barracks, Kammler admitted, had to be dropped, because the prisoners “are in such a catastrophic physical state that it is currently not possible to contemplate a successful labor deployment.”274

In the end, Majdanek never grew into a major hub for forced labor. The provisional compound was still far from finished in summer 1942. There were only two barracks for SS guards, the watchtowers were incomplete, and building material was scattered all over the grounds.275 Majdanek did not come close to its projected size. Most of the time, it held no more than around ten to fifteen thousand inmates, and none of them laid any foundations for German settlements in the east.276 SS progress in Birkenau remained slow, too. Only in March 1942, half a year after the initial construction order, had work progressed far enough for the surviving POWs to be transferred from their enclosure in the main camp to Birkenau. These Soviet soldiers now numbered fewer than one thousand, and most of them soon perished, too. In mid-April 1942, a young Jewish prisoner who had just been deported from Slovakia (a German puppet state) to Birkenau found the last remnant of the Soviet soldiers “in a terribly neglected state,” living on the “unfinished building site, without any protection against cold and rain, and dying in droves.”277

Heinrich Himmler’s first bid for Soviet slave laborers ended in failure and misery. Rather than turning the KL into gigantic reservoirs of forced labor, the arrival of Soviet soldiers opened a new round of carnage in the camps. In spring 1942, when most of the remaining POW compounds were closed down—with the prisoners now officially classified as concentration camp inmates—no more than five thousand of the twenty-seven thousand Soviet soldiers who had arrived for forced labor in autumn 1941 were still alive.278 One of the survivors was Nikolaj Wassiljew, who was among the Auschwitz prisoners transferred to Birkenau in March 1942. Asked after the war about the fate of his comrades, Wassiljew gave a blunt answer: “Shot. Killed during work. Died of hunger. Died of illness.”279

Taking Stock

Looking at the KL in late 1941 and early 1942, a great deal had changed since the outbreak of the Second World War. While they were still recognizable as concentration camps, the system had undergone a major makeover in barely two years. In early 1942, there were thirteen main camps, not six, with four new ones in occupied Nazi Europe: Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Stutthof in Poland, and Natzweiler in France.280 Prisoner numbers had shot up, too, from just over twenty thousand to around eighty thousand, with most new prisoners coming from occupied Europe, above all from Poland and the Soviet Union. And while prisoners in 1939 might have imagined that their treatment could not get any worse, it quickly had. Nazi terror escalated during the war, inside and outside the KL. The camps’ towering death rate tells its own story, as do the weapons deployed by the SS. By 1942, the Camp SS practiced almost every conceivable form of murder: beating, hanging, shooting, starving, drowning, gassing, and poisoning.

The pivotal year was 1941, as the concentration camps moved from the lethal conditions of the early war period to mass extermination, developing a dual function. As before, the Camp SS exploited, abused, and killed individual prisoners. But the camps now also became sites of systematic mass murder, with central programs to kill infirm prisoners and so-called Soviet commissars. Take Sachsenhausen, one of the model camps of the SS. During 1941, an average of around ten thousand regular prisoners were held here. Every day was torture for them, dominated by forced labor, drills, crammed barracks, hunger, illness, and extreme violence. Death from malnourishment and disease was common, especially among Poles and Jews. Still, the Camp SS had no plans to kill all these prisoners and the majority survived.281 The opposite was true for the ten thousand Soviet “commissars” who came to the camp between September and November 1941 and rarely lived longer than a couple of days; Sachsenhausen was an extermination camp for these men.

Systematic mass killing turned to genocide in 1942, as the Holocaust entered the KL. But this change did not come out of nowhere. It is striking how many structural elements of the Holocaust had emerged inside concentration camps before the SS crossed the threshold to genocide. This included the deportation of victims straight to their deaths; tight transport schedules; the elaborate camouflage of mass murder, with fake showers and doctors’ offices; the use of poison gas, including Zyklon B; the construction of new crematoria, which were adapted, repaired, and extended to keep up with all the dead; the regular purges among prisoners to kill those “unfit for work”; the violation of prisoners’ bodies after death, with gold teeth broken out. All this predated the Holocaust. Even the selection of prisoners on arrival—sending the weaker ones straight to their deaths and working the others until they, too, perished—had been pioneered in autumn 1941, targeting Soviet “commissars.” Simply put: the essential mechanics of the Holocaust were in place by the end of 1941—a KL like Auschwitz was ready for the genocide of European Jewry.

And yet, the mass murder of invalids and Soviet POWs was no dress rehearsal for the Holocaust. This would be reading history backward. These killings were driven by their own terrible logic, without the murder of the Jews in mind. Indeed, when the decision for these earlier killing programs was taken in spring and summer 1941, the Nazi regime had not yet settled on the immediate extermination of European Jews as state policy. No KL was designated as a place for killing large numbers of Jews until 1942. This shift came only after momentous decisions by Nazi leaders ushered in a new chapter in the history of the SS concentration camps, and the Third Reich as a whole.

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